Paul Rusesabagina, the man whose life inspired the Oscar-nominated film Hotel Rwanda about the 1994 genocide, has been sentenced to 25 years in prison after being convicted of terrorism offenses on Monday. Rusesabagina, who is known for risking his life to shelter more than 1,000 people in his hotel during the Rwandan genocide, boycotted the announcement of the verdict.
He had said he did not expect justice in a trial he called a “sham”, a report by the Washington Post said. He was convicted on nine charges including the formation of an illegal armed group, membership in a terrorist group, financing a terror group, murder and abduction, the report added. The ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero was charged along with 20 other people.
A Belgian citizen and US resident, the 67-year-old was arrested in August 2020 after what he said was a kidnapping from Dubai by Rwandan officials. He was accused of supporting an armed wing of his opposition political platform, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change. The group had said it was behind attacks in 2018 and 2019 in the south of the country which killed nine Rwandans.
“He founded a terrorist organization that attacked Rwanda, he financially contributed to terrorist activities,” Justice Beatrice Mukamurenzi said of Rusesabagina, according to Aljazeera.
Rwandan prosecutors were seeking a life sentence for Rusesabagina, but Justice Mukamurenzi said the term “should be reduced to 25 years” since it was his first conviction, Aljazeera reported.
Rusesabagina, who remains in custody, has said in the past months that he is innocent of all charges. He has said that his arrest was in response to his criticism of Rwandan President Paul Kagame over alleged human rights abuses. “This seems like a show trial, which is really aimed at silencing dissent, making sure that anyone standing up, criticizing and challenging Kagame is simply will not be allowed to do that,” author Michela Wrong, who recently published a book on Rwanda, told Al Jazeera.
“The verdict is making clear to people who are in the diaspora and criticising Kagame that the government can get them wherever they are.”
Rusesabagina’s trial had drawn concern from human rights organizations and activists across the world. His family had claimed that he was kidnapped and taken to Rwanda against his will. However, the court ruled that he was not kidnapped when he was tricked into boarding a chartered flight. Rusesabagina also said he was tortured before being sent to jail but Rwandan officials denied those claims. His family now fears he might die behind bars given his age and poor health.
Rusesabagina, a longtime critic of Kagame, has denied all accusations of terrorism in the past. In 2010, Rwanda’s prosecutor-general tried to bring a case against Rusesabagina but that ambition was nullified by a lack of evidence. Rusesabagina, who at the time lived in the U.S., called the attempts by the prosecutor-general “baseless”.
Even as he left the United States, the famous hotelier could not settle in his country but live in South Africa. He planned to challenge Kagame for the Rwandan presidency, a dream that is now in jeopardy.
Rusesabagina is known to much of the world through the 2004 drama in which he was portrayed by Don Cheadle. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award by former President George W. Bush in 2005. But in Rwanda, Rusesabagina divides opinion. Ibuka, the Rwandan genocide survivor’s group, once accused him of exaggerating his life-saving role in the genocide.