Paul Rusebagina, the “Hotel Rwanda” hero who became a fiercely outspoken government critic, was sentenced Monday to 25 years in prison on terrorism charges after his supporters labeled the show trial a politically motivated one.
He was indicted by a high court in Kigali for joining a rebel group blamed for deadly gun, grenade and arson attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019.
“He founded a terrorist organization that invaded Rwanda, he contributed financially to terrorist activities,” Justice Beatrice Mukamurenzi said at the end of the seven-month trial.
Rwandan prosecutors have sought a life sentence for the 67-year-old former hotelier who is credited with saving more than 1,200 lives during the country’s 1994 genocide, and whose actions inspired the Hollywood film .
But Mukamurenzi said the sentence “should be reduced to 25 years” as it was his first sentence.
Neither Rusebagina nor her lawyers were in court for the ruling, which her family – who have expressed concerns about her health – warned she could be seen dying in prison.
The 20 co-defendants, who appeared in court and dressed in pink prison uniforms, were given sentences ranging from three to 20 years.
Rusesabagina, who used his fame to denounce Rwandan leader Paul Kagame as dictator, has been behind bars since his arrest in August 2020, when he was believed to be on a plane to Burundi. was bound, landed in Kigali instead.
His family maintains that Russabagina was kidnapped and dismissed as the withdrawal of nine charges against him by the retaliatory government for his outspoken views.
Earlier this month, Kagame dismissed criticism of the case, saying that Rusesabagina was in the courtroom for the lives lost “not because of his fame but because of his actions”.
The trial began in February but the Belgian citizen and US green card holder boycotted it since March, accusing the court of “unfairness and lack of independence”.
The United States – which awarded Rusebagina its Presidential Medal in 2005 – as well as other governments and rights groups expressed concerns about her relocation to Rwanda.
On Monday, both Washington and Brussels said they were concerned that Roussabagina had been denied a fair trial.
“The alleged lack of a fair-trial guarantee raises questions about the fairness of the decision,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement, citing objections to Russabagina’s access to his lawyers.
Belgium’s foreign ministry said that despite Brussels’ appeal, “Rousebagina did not benefit from a fair and equitable trial”.
“Even the notion of innocence was not respected. These elements really call into question the trial and the verdict.”
Kagame’s government accused Rusebagina of belonging to the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel group blamed for attacks in 2018 and 2019 that killed nine people.
He denied any involvement in the attacks, but was the founder of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition group whose FLN is seen as an armed wing.
“The MRCD-FLN committed terrorist acts. The MRCD cannot be separated from the FLN’s military acts”, Judge Mukamurenzi said.
During the trial, her co-defendants gave conflicting testimony about the level of Rusesabagina’s involvement with the FLN and its fighters.
The Kigali government applauded the decision, with spokesman Yolande Makolo tweeting: “The evidence against the accused was indisputable, and the people of Rwanda will now feel safe, justice has been served.”
Rusesabagina was the former manager of the Htel des Milles Collins in Kigali, where he sheltered hundreds of guests during the massacre that killed 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsi.
A decade later, American actor Don Cheadle played Rusebagina, a moderate Hutu, in the Oscar-nominated blockbuster that brought his story to an international audience.
Rusesabagina soon became disillusioned with the new Tutsi-dominated government led by Kagame, the rebel leader-turned-president, whose army put an end to the mass killings.
He accused Kagame of authoritarian tendencies and left Rwanda in 1996, living in Belgium and then the United States.
He used his global platform to drive political change in Kigali, and developed close ties with opposition groups in exile.
His family, which has campaigned globally for his release, says Russabagina is a political prisoner and accuses authorities of torturing him in custody.
“The judges decided what the dictator wanted them to decide, that’s exactly what we expected,” Russabagina’s daughter Karine Kanimba told AFP.
“We fear my father will be killed in prison,” she said.
(This story has not been edited by NB staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)