Trial of Hotel Rwanda ‘hero’ gets underway

Paul Rusesabagina, center, who inspired the film "Hotel Rwanda" for saving people from genocide, appears at the Kicukiro Primary Court in the capital Kigali, Rwanda Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. Rusesabagina became famous for protecting more than 1,000 people as a hotel manager during Rwanda's 1994 genocide and was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 but Rwandan authorities accused him of supporting the armed wing of his opposition political platform, which has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks inside Rwanda. (AP Photo)
Paul Rusesabagina, center, who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda” for saving people from genocide, appears at the Kicukiro Primary Court in the capital Kigali, Rwanda. (AP Photo)

Paul Rusesabagina, the polarising hero of the hit movie “Hotel Rwanda,” went on trial Wednesday in a closely-watched case in Kigali where he stands accused of serious crimes including terrorism.

Rusesabagina, whose actions during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide inspired the Hollywood blockbuster, had been living abroad for years before appearing in Kigali under arrest in mysterious circumstances in October.

His family and lawyers say he was abducted overseas and brought back to Rwanda illegally. They say that as he is an outspoken government critic, he cannot receive a fair trial there and that he has not been allowed to meet with international lawyers.

The former hotelier has been charged with 13 offenses including terrorism, financing and founding militant groups, murder, arson and conspiracy to involve children in armed groups.

He appeared in court alongside 20 others also facing similar charges. The accused all wore face masks and the pink standard-issue uniforms assigned to defendants in Rwanda.

Rusesabagina’s lawyer began by arguing the court did not have the jurisdiction to try him.

“If a citizen of Belgium is deported legally to Rwanda, they can be tried locally. But is that what happened? We need to examine how he was arrested because it did not comply with the laws,” said lawyer Gatera Gashaba.

When called upon to identify himself to the courtroom, Rusesabagina said he should not be referred to as a Rwandan.

“Let me say this again as I have said before many times. I am not a Rwandan. I am Belgian. The case file on me should reflect that,” Rusesabagina told the court when called upon to identify himself.

Lead prosecutor Bonaventure Ruberwa said Rusesabagina’s parents were Rwandans and he had never renounced his citizenship.

“He was reported as a Rwandan to the Belgian authorities, also holding dual citizenship as a Belgian, so the court should disregard his claim.”

The 66-year-old had already been denied bail, which he sought on account of poor health.

Rusesabagina is credited with sheltering hundreds of Rwandans inside a hotel he managed during the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 mostly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus were slaughtered.

But in the years after Hollywood made him an international celebrity, a more complex image emerged of the staunch government critic, whose tirades against the regime of long-serving Rwandan ruler Paul Kagame made him an enemy of the state.

He admitted in court to helping form the National Liberation Front (FLN), an armed movement he previously said sought to liberate Rwanda from Kagame.

The president has been in power since 1994 and is accused by critics of crushing opponents and ruling through fear.

Rusesabagina’s trial has drawn international attention. The United States, which awarded Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, has demanded he be given a fair trial, while the European Union parliament has called for his release.