Paul Rusesabagina, the “Hotel Rwanda” hero who went on to become a vehement government critic, was found guilty of terror charges on Monday in what his supporters called a politically motivated show trial. He was found guilty by a Kigali high court of forming a rebel group responsible for deadly gun, grenade, and arson attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019.
“He founded a terrorist organization that attacked Rwanda, and he financially supported terrorist activities,” said Justice Beatrice Mukamurenzi at the conclusion of a seven-month trial.
Rwandan prosecutors have requested a life sentence for Rusesabagina, a 67-year-old former hotelier who is credited with saving over 1,200 lives during the country’s 1994 genocide and whose actions inspired the Hollywood film.
Rusesabagina, whose family has expressed concerns about his health, and his lawyers were not present in court for the verdict. He is expected to file an appeal.
The 20 other defendants in the case were brought to court handcuffed and dressed in pale pink prison uniforms. Rusesabagina, who used his celebrity to call Rwandan President Paul Kagame a dictator, has been imprisoned since his arrest in August 2020, when a plane he thought was bound for Burundi instead landed in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
Rusesabagina’s family claims he was kidnapped and that the nine charges leveled against him are retaliation by a vengeful government for his outspoken views.
Earlier this month, Kagame dismissed criticism of the case, claiming that Rusesabagina was indicted not because of his celebrity, but because of the lives lost “as a result of his actions.” The trial began in February, but the Belgian national and US green card holder has been boycotting it since March, accusing the court of “unfairness and lack of independence.”
The US, which awarded Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, as well as the European Parliament and Belgium, have expressed concerns about his transfer to Rwanda and the fairness of his trial.
Rusesabagina was accused by Kagame’s government of supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel group blamed for nine deaths in attacks in 2018 and 2019.
He denied any involvement in the attacks, but he was a founding member of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition group with the FLN as its armed wing.
“Terrorist acts were committed by the MRCD-FLN. Military acts cannot be separated from MRCD “Judge Mukamurenzi stated that FLN is a criminal organization.
“The court concludes that Rusesabagina’s role in establishing the FLN, providing funds to the rebels, and purchasing communication tools for the rebels all constitute the crime of terrorism.”
During the trial, his co-defendants gave contradictory testimony about Rusesabagina’s level of involvement with the FLN and its fighters. Rusesabagina was the former manager of Kigali’s Hotel des Mille Collines, where he sheltered hundreds of guests during the genocide that killed 800,000 people, the majority of whom were ethnic Tutsis.
A decade later, Don Cheadle, an American actor, portrayed Rusesabagina, a moderate Hutu, in the Oscar-nominated blockbuster that brought his story to a global audience.
Rusesabagina quickly lost faith in the new Tutsi-dominated government led by Kagame, the rebel leader-turned-president whose forces put an end to the mass killings.
He accused Kagame of authoritarianism and fled Rwanda in 1996, first to Belgium, then to the United States. Abroad, he used his global platform to advocate for political change in Kigali, and he formed close ties with exiled opposition groups.
His family, who have campaigned for his release around the world, claims Rusesabagina is a political prisoner and accuses Rwandan authorities of torturing him in detention.
The Hotel Rwanda Foundation, which supports Rusesabagina, described the court proceedings earlier this month as a “show trial,” claiming that the government had failed to provide any credible evidence against him.
“Paul’s family and team knew that the moment he was kidnapped, he would be declared ‘guilty’ — no trial was required,” it said. Meanwhile, in July, an international media investigation claimed that Rusesabagina’s daughter Carine Kanimba was spied on using the Pegasus malware developed by Israeli firm NSO.
Investigators confirmed that Kanimba’s cell phone, a dual citizen of the United States and Belgium, had been compromised multiple times.