Rwanda: Paul Rusesabagina, the ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero, goes on trial

By Romain Gras
Posted on Friday, 19 February 2021 17:52

Paul Rusessabagina, at the opening of his trial in Kigali, February 17, 2021. © REUTERS / Clement Uwiringiyimana

Arrested at the end of August 2020 in circumstances worthy of a spy movie, Paul Rusesabagina appeared before the Rwandan judiciary on 17 February, for the opening of a long-awaited trial.

A former manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines and one of the main detractors of Paul Kagame, the 66-year-old opponent and leader of the Mouvement Rwandais pour le Changement Démocratique  (MRCD), is being prosecuted for “terrorism, murder and financing rebellion”.

Rusesabagina became an icon in 2004 thanks to the film Hotel Rwanda. It recounts the role – exaggerated, according to his critics – that he played in protecting nearly 1,300 Tutsis who sought refuge in the Sabena-built establishment, of which he was the manager, during the genocide. Rusesabagina was charged in September 2020 on thirteen counts.

He appeared before the high court specialised in international and border crimes – which is based in Kigali – faced with nine charges, all related to acts of terrorism. Rusesabagina is accused of “forming an irregular armed group”, “belonging to a terrorist organisation”, “financing terrorism”, “murder as an act of terrorism”, “kidnapping as an act of terrorism”, “armed robbery as an act of terrorism”, “arson as an act of terrorism”, “attempted murder as an act of terrorism” and “assault and battery as acts of terrorism.”

According to Rwandan criminal law, the maximum penalties for these charges range from ten years to life imprisonment.

READ MORE Rwanda: the mystery surrounding Paul Rusesabagina’s arrest

Rusesabagina is not alone in the dock. The prosecutor’s office has decided to merge several cases related to the activities of the Forces de Libération National (FLN), the armed wing of Rusesabagina’s movement.

These include, on the one hand, seventeen members of the FLN involved – according to a source close to the investigation – “in the fighting, logistics and/or recruitment” and, on the other, two successive spokesmen of this rebellion, Callixte Nsabimana and Herman Nsengimana.

In principle, the trial will be the occasion to answer the many questions that remain surrounding this case. Did Rusesabagina exercise real authority over the fighters of the FLN who carried out several deadly attacks on Rwandan soil? What role did he play in this rebellion? What support did he have?

International mobilisation

The question of primary interest to Rusesabagina’s family and defence team are the exact circumstances surrounding his arrest. He had landed in Kigali on 28 August from Dubai and was then presented to the press on 31 August 2020, after three days of incommunicado detention.

He had thought he was going to Burundi but was duped by a mysterious Burundian pastor by the name of Constantin Niyomwungere. The latter’s version, which he told us, partly corroborates Rusesabagina’s words but differs on the motivations for this trip.

Rusesabagina claims that he had to go to Burundi to speak at church functions. Niyomwungere, on the other hand, states that this trip was to coordinate the FLN’s activities and to meet the Burundian authorities.

For Rusesabagina’s family, who are worried about the lack of lawyers present, this “trap” that the Rwandan authorities are talking about is akin to kidnapping. A complaint has been filed in the US against the Greek company GainJet, the airline that transported Rusesabagina to Rwanda.

The kidnapping theory, which has been tirelessly defended for several months by the family, has received a great deal of support abroad.

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The family of the oppositionist claims to have communicated with Anthony Blinken, the new US secretary of state. Former prime minister of Belgium Sophie Wilmes, now foreign minister, called on Rwanda to “respect the rights” of Rusesabagina.

On 11 February, members of European Parliament adopted a highly critical resolution calling on “the Rwandan authorities to provide a full and substantiated report on how Mr. Rusesabagina was apprehended and transferred to Kigali”.

“The support of the European Parliament demonstrates that we are not the only ones who believe that our father is being held illegally and that the process that led to his arrest does not respect any law,” Carine Kanimba, his daughter, told us.

She expressed concern for her father’s health and said that “a trial does not start with a kidnapping”. Gatera Gashabana, Rusesabagina’s Rwandan lawyer, says his client has recently seen a doctor and is preparing for the trial “in serenity”.

The Rwandan parliamentarians for their part responded to these criticisms, on the eve of the opening of the trial, in a vitriolic statement. They denounced “an attempt to improperly influence ongoing judicial proceedings” and rejected “the unsubstantiated allegation” that Rusesabagina will not receive a fair trial.

Finally, the Rwandan parliament stated that failing to condemn the attacks perpetrated by the FLN “suggests the implicit support of the European Parliament”.

From Mohamed Ali to Faustin Twagiramungu

The international community’s attention on Rusesabagina is nothing new. After leaving Rwanda in 1996 and moving to Belgium, where he obtained political asylum and then Belgian nationality, the man who was then earning his living as a taxi driver became the hero of a Hollywood film in 2004 which documents his actions during the genocide.

Directed by Terry George, with Don Cheadle who portrays the former manager of Les Milles Collines, Hotel Rwanda was a huge success.

However, Rusesabagina’s actions have been questioned by several survivors who present him as an “opportunist”.

But in the US, his image remains intact. In November 2005, he was even awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’ highest civilian honour, by President George W. Bush. He received his award alongside boxer Mohamed Ali and singer Aretha Franklin. He published his autobiography entitled An Ordinary Man a year later.

In the following years, Rusesabagina became one of the strongest voices protesting Kagame and his regime. From 2010 onwards, his story would be intimately linked to that of nebulous politico-military movements against the Rwandan regime.

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Suspected since 2009 by Kigali of financing the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) from the US via Western Union transfers, Rusesabagina was questioned for the first time by the Belgian justice system in 2011.

Briefly involved in discussions prior to the formation of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), founded by former members of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front in exile, Rusesabagina quickly jumped ship to devote himself to his own party, the PDR-Ihumure. A series of more or less fruitful alliances with different movements then began.

In 2014, the PDR was close to the Coalition des Partis Politiques pour le Changement, which combined several formations including the Rwanda Dream Initiative of former prime minister Faustin Twagiramungu, which had also formed an alliance with the FDLR. The initiative failed but did not end the attempts to “converge struggles”.

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The success of these negotiations came in July 2017 – a month before the presidential election in Rwanda – when Rusesabagina launched the MRCD, which brought together his party, that of Twagiramungu and an armed movement, the Conseil National pour le Renouveau et la Démocratie (CNRD), a dissident faction of the FDLR then led by Wilson Irategeka.

In March 2018, this movement was strengthened by a military branch, the FLN, after gathering support from the Rwandese Revolutionary Movement of Nsabimana, alias “Sankara.” Fighters of the FLN then carried out, between June and December 2018, several attacks in the region of Nyungwe Forest in southern Rwanda. These facts form the basis for the accusations of terrorism levelled against Rusesabagina.

International cooperation

At that time, Kigali relaunched proceedings against several opponents in exile. Rusesabagina was one of them, alongside Kayumba Nyamwasa, the head of the RNC.

In April 2019, the Rwandan authorities scored a first success, arresting Nsabimana in Comoros. Nsengimana, his successor as spokesman of the FLN, was then arrested in the DRC in January 2020 and handed over to Rwanda by the Congolese authorities, who were stepping up their military cooperation with Kigali. Irategeka was killed in the DRC during that period.

Meanwhile, the Rwandan justice system was making progress on the Rusesabagina case. According to a source close to the investigation, a delegation of Belgian investigators travelled to Rwanda during the first half of 2019 to collect testimonies from detainees and evidence.

A search was then conducted in September 2019 of Rusesabagina’s Belgian home in Kraainem, a suburb of Brussels. Computers, telephones and various documents were seized.

READ MORE Rwanda: The events that led to Paul Rusesabagina’s arrest

These are the pieces of evidence that the prosecution presented at the trial that opened on 17 February. This evidence was submitted alongside the testimonies already collected during the preliminary hearings, in particular those of Nsabimana and Nsengimana, the two FLN spokesmen. At his first court appearance, in May 2019, Nsabimana pleaded guilty to the 16 charges against him.

The man who calls himself “Sankara” had also assured the court that he had communicated with members of the Burundian and Ugandan intelligence services. In particular, he had explained that a certain “Major Bertin”, whom he described as a Burundian foreign intelligence officer, had helped him arrange a meeting with the head of Ugandan military intelligence, Brigadier Abel Kandiho.

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Will Rusesabagina – who according to the pastor who set him up, wanted to meet the Burundian authorities – corroborate these elements? At a hearing on 25 September, Rusesabagina simply stated that the armed wing of the MRCD – the FLN – was placed under the authority of Irategeka’s CNRD, while he himself only dealt with the “diplomatic” branch of the movement. According to him, each branch acted independently from the others.

For the prosecution, on the other hand, his influence over the FLN – to which Rusesabagina admitted at a hearing that he had sent money – is not in doubt. On the Kigali side, the authorities regularly point out that the oppositionist has publicly supported, on several occasions, the option of armed struggle against the Kagame regime.

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