‘Hotel Rwanda’ Dissident Is Found Guilty of Forming a Terrorist Group

KIGALI, Rwanda — Paul Rusesabagina, the prominent dissident who was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie “Hotel Rwanda” was found guilty on Monday of forming an armed terrorist group in a monthslong case that drew international condemnation after government officials boasted about having tricked him into returning to Rwanda.

Mr. Rusesabagina was once praised for sheltering more than 1,200 people in the hotel he managed during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. But he gradually became one of the most high-profile critics of Rwanda’s longtime leader, Paul Kagame, calling out the president for his increasingly repressive rule. Mr. Kagame in turn accused Mr. Rusesabagina of profiting from invented stories about his heroism and of financing armed rebel groups to overthrow his government.

Mr. Rusesabagina was tried on nine charges, including forming an illegal armed group, kidnapping, arson and murder. Judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi said, “The court finds that they should be found guilty for being part of this terrorist group.”

“They committed terror acts which they later bragged about in different announcements and videos,” the judge added.

Timothy P. Longman, a professor of political science and international affairs at Boston University and the author of two books on Rwanda, said, “This trial fits into a long history in Rwanda of silencing dissent.”

“The actual verdict in the Rusesabagina case is almost irrelevant at this point, because the message has been clearly sent that no Rwandan is safe to speak out against President Kagame and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front,” he added.

Mr. Rusesabagina boycotted the trial in March, saying he did not expect to find justice. He had been living in Texas last year when he was deceived by Rwandan government operatives into getting on a plane in Dubai that brought him to Kigali, the Rwandan capital. He says he was initially denied access to attorneys of his choosing, held in solitary confinement, tortured and interrogated in a secret detention center.

Mr. Rusesabagina and his lawyers have also contended that his rights to confidential communication and to prepare his defense have been repeatedly violated. The trial, which began in February, received widespread condemnation from Mr. Rusesabagina’s family, rights groups, legal associations, and European and American lawmakers. More than three dozen U.S. senators and representatives have urged Mr. Kagame to release him.

Mr. Rusesabagina decided not to attend the court’s session on Monday, according to one of his lawyers, Jean-Félix Rudakemwa. The Supreme Court complex, which is close to the president’s office, was packed with members of the diplomatic corps, lawyers, and security officials.

“It’s been so painful to watch this trial,” said Carine Kanimba, Mr. Rusesabagina’s daughter, who watched the proceedings online from Belgium. “We knew they would find him guilty. The script was written long before he entered the courtroom. This verdict means nothing.”

At the heart of Rwanda’s case against Mr. Rusesabagina was his leadership role in the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change, a coalition of opposition groups in exile whose armed wing, the National Liberation Front, is accused of being responsible for attacks inside Rwanda that killed nine people. Mr. Rusesabagina was on trial with 20 other defendants, whom prosecutors described as fighters involved in carrying out those attacks in southern Rwanda.

The three-judge panel of the Rwandan High Court Chamber for International and Cross-border Crimes was expected to deliver its ruling in mid-August, but postponed without giving any reason.

The sentencing will herald a dismal chapter for a man lauded globally as a humanitarian and an activist who displayed courage amid a season of bloodletting.

Mr. Rusesabagina was the manager of the luxurious Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali when the 1994 genocide began. As Hutu militiamen killed as many as one million people, Mr. Rusesabagina turned the hotel into a haven for 1,268 Tutsis and moderate Hutus — using cash, alcohol and diplomacy to fend off the would-be killers.

Fearing for his safety in the years after the genocide, Mr. Rusesabagina sought political asylum in Belgium. His profile was raised after the movie “Hotel Rwanda” was released to critical acclaim, earning him global accolades including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2005.

But it was Mr. Rusesabagina’s 2006 memoir, “An Ordinary Man,” that put him in direct conflict with Kigali. In it, he wrote that Mr. Kagame governed Rwanda “for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis,” and that the Central African nation had “a cosmetic democracy and a hollow system of justice.”

Soon after, Rwandan officials began accusing him of exaggerating his role during the genocide, as well as aiding anti-Rwanda rebel groups. After a series of threats and home intrusions in Brussels, he decided to move his family to the United States, settling in San Antonio, Texas.

It was from there that he boarded a flight in August last year, making his way to Chicago before catching an Emirates flight to Dubai. Afterward, he got on a private jet with Constantin Niyomwungere, a pastor whom he called his “friend” and who he said had invited him to speak to his churches in Burundi, Rwanda’s neighbor.

The two men had met numerous times before in Belgium, with Mr. Niyomwungere even visiting Mr. Rusesabagina’s home at least twice, Mr. Rusesabagina’s wife, Tatiana, said in an interview.

What Mr. Rusesabagina didn’t know was that Mr. Niyomwungere was an agent for Rwandan intelligence and had been part of a setup to lure him to Rwanda. The private jet, operated by the Greece-based Charter firm GainJet and paid for by the Rwandan government, landed in Kigali on Aug. 28, 2020. Upon landing, Mr. Rusesabagina was tied up, blindfolded and arrested.

In December, Mr. Rusesabagina and his family sued the air charter company in the United States, alleging that it was complicit in his kidnap.

For days, he was held at a location he described as a “slaughterhouse” where he remained bound, unable to properly breathe or use the bathroom, according to an affidavit from one of his Rwandan lawyers, Mr. Rudakemwa.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said that the arrest amounted to an enforced disappearance, a violation of international law.

The Rwandan authorities denied that Mr. Rusesabagina was mistreated and said that he was going to Burundi to liaise with rebel groups based there and in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. But Rwandan officials did not hide their glee in apprehending Mr. Rusesabagina. Rwanda’s spy chief, Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita, said in an interview with The New York Times that it had been a “very flawless” and “wonderful intelligence operation.”

The trial officially began in February after the court rejected Mr. Rusesabagina’s argument that he could not be tried in Rwanda because he was no longer a citizen. A Belgian citizen and a permanent resident of the United States, he was denied bail even though his family and lawyers raised concerns about his poor health.

In March, he said he would no longer participate in the trial because he did not expect it to be fair. As late as Friday, his lawyers said that the prison authorities were continuing to subject them to searches, prohibit them from taking documents into their meetings and had confiscated confidential and privileged legal materials related to the case — an issue that Rwanda’s immediate former attorney general inadvertently admitted on a video recording.

Kate Gibson, Mr. Rusesabagina’s lead counsel, said, “Any one of these violations would prompt an independent judiciary to permanently stay the proceedings against an accused.”

As the trial progressed, some of Mr. Rusesabagina’s co-defendants recanted their testimony against him, saying that he had never belonged to a rebel group or ordered attacks. Among them was Callixte Nsabimana, the armed group’s former spokesman, who was brought to Rwanda from Comoros under mysterious circumstances in 2019.

In June, Mr. Rusesabagina’s international defense team said that the authorities had told him they would stop his access to food, water and medicine — a move that, they believed, was meant to pressure him to return to trial. The Rwandan authorities said he was being treated like other inmates and had access to meals and a medical doctor.

Recently released from solitary confinement after 258 days, Mr. Rusesabagina has been attending church on Saturdays, taking short daily walks, talking to his family once a week and reading books sent by family members. But his interaction with inmates is very limited, Mr. Rudakemwa, his lawyer, said.

“No one is allowed to talk to him,” he said. “It’s like another isolation.”

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