By Lisa Vives
Hotel Rwanda hero Paul Rusesabagina has been sentenced to 25 years in prison on terror charges despite pleas from human rights watchdogs and other critics of Rwanda’s repressive government to lessen the judgement or cancel it.
Rusesabagina was credited with sheltering more than a thousand ethnic Tutsis during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and was a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. He boycotted the announcement of the verdict after calling the trial a “sham.”
A court found the 67-year-old Rusesabagina guilty of backing a rebel group behind deadly attacks in 2018 and 2019. His family has called the trial a sham, saying he was taken to Rwanda, from exile, by force.
The U.S. resident and Belgian citizen was convicted on eight charges including membership in a terrorist group, murder, and abduction. He was charged along with 20 other people. The US, where Rusesabagina is a resident, said it was concerned by the conviction.
Rusesabagina, who remains in custody, has asserted that his arrest was in response to his criticism of long-time Rwandan President Paul Kagame over alleged human rights abuses. Kagame’s government has repeatedly denied targeting dissenting voices with arrests and extrajudicial killings.
About a year ago, Rusesabagina disappeared during a visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and appeared days later in Rwanda in handcuffs, accused of supporting the armed wing of his opposition political platform, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change.
The armed group claimed some responsibility for attacks in 2018 and 2019 in southern Rwanda in which nine Rwandans died. Rusesabagina testified at trial that he helped to form the armed group to help refugees but said he never supported violence—and sought to distance himself from its deadly attacks.
Throughout the trial, Rusesabagina maintained that he is not guilty of the charges against him but said he didn’t expect to get justice.
“We knew from the day he was kidnapped that the verdict would be ‘guilty’ on some or all of the false charges. We are happy that the charade of the trial is ending,” Rusesabagina’s family said in a statement.
A member of his legal team, Kate Gibson, added that “the only thing that has been surprising in watching this horror show unfold over the last year has been the brazenness and openness with which the Rwandan authorities have been willing to systematically violate all of the fair trial rights to which Paul was entitled.”
Amnesty International criticized the proceedings, noting that Rusesabagina was initially denied the right to choose his own lawyer. It added that Kagame’s comments that “Rusesabagina had ‘done something terribly wrong, committed a crime,’ may have prejudiced the defendant’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said “the reported lack of fair trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict,” and he urged Rwanda’s government to examine ”shortcomings” in the case, including Rusesabagina’s reported lack of confidential, unimpeded access to his lawyers and case documents.