By Spy Uganda Correspondent
Kigali: A renowned hero of the Rwandan genocide, who later became a vocal critic of long-ruling Rwandan President Paul Kagame, has been sentenced to 25 years in prison on terrorism charges after a trial that was widely condemned as a rigged process.
The governments of the United States and Belgium, along with human-rights groups such as Amnesty International, questioned the fairness of the trial that led to the guilty verdict on Monday for Paul Rusesabagina. His family said it was effectively a death sentence for the 67-year-old man, who is in poor health.
Mr. Rusesabagina is a former hotel manager who rescued more than 1,200 people from the genocide by sheltering them at his luxury hotel – a saga that inspired the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda. An estimated 800,000 people were killed in the 1994 genocide.
Mr. Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and U.S. resident who received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, was lured onto a private jet in Dubai last year with a fake invitation to speak to Burundian churches. The plane had been secretly chartered by the Rwandan government and he was flown to Rwanda, where he says he was tortured for days in detention.
His family called it a kidnapping. Human-rights groups said it was an illegal “enforced disappearance.” But in their six-hour verdict on Monday, a panel of Rwandan judges dismissed the kidnapping complaint in one brief sentence. “The court rejected that point because there was no force or abduction or any violation of any country’s sovereignty,” Judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi said.
In their ruling, the judges found Mr. Rusesabagina guilty of eight terrorism-related charges for founding a Rwandan opposition movement with links to an armed group, the National Liberation Front, or FLN, which allegedly killed nine people in attacks against Rwandan civilians in 2018 and 2019.
His supporters have said he did not control the FLN and believed it was a self-defence group for Rwandan civilians under threat from security forces. There was no independent evidence that the FLN committed the attacks or that the attacks even took place, they say.
Mr. Rusesabagina has been boycotting the trial since March and refused to attend the verdict on Monday. His family said the trial was a charade, with its outcome orchestrated by Mr. Kagame, who had declared before the trial that the former hotelier was a criminal with blood on his hands.
“We knew from the day he was kidnapped that the verdict would be ‘guilty’ on some or all of the false charges,” the family said in a statement on Monday.
“He has criticized Paul Kagame’s human-rights abuses for nearly two decades. Kagame made it clear over that time that one of his main goals was to silence our father. He is in a dictator’s clutches.”
Philippe Larochelle, a Canadian lawyer on the defence team, said the verdict relied heavily on statements that Mr. Rusesabagina had made in detention when he was tortured and deprived of legal representation. There was no hearing on the admissibility of those statements, he said.
The trial also relied on prosecution witnesses who had given false testimony in an earlier trial of another opposition politician, he said.
Rwandan officials have acknowledged that they intercepted confidential communications between Mr. Rusesabagina and his defence lawyers. Legal experts have called this a violation of his rights.
“This was a show trial, rather than a fair judicial inquiry,” said Geoffrey Robertson, a human-rights lawyer who monitored the trial for the Clooney Foundation for Justice. “The prosecution evidence against him was unveiled but not challenged.”
Amnesty International said it had noted “numerous fair trial violations” in the case, beginning with his “arrest under false pretenses and unlawful transfer to Rwanda.”
Human Rights Watch said the entire case was “riddled with irregularities and evidence of political interference.”
Both groups noted that an investigation had found that the Rwandan government used Israeli spyware to target thousands of Rwandan activists and journalists, including Mr. Rusesabagina’s daughter, Carine Kanimba.
Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister, Sophie Wilmès, said the trial was not fair or equitable, “in particular with regard to the rights of the defence.” The presumption of innocence was not respected, she said in a statement on Monday.
Ned Price, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said the United States is concerned by the verdict. “The reported lack of fair trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict,” he said.
The Rusesabagina case has cast a spotlight on the Kagame government’s capacity to reach beyond its borders to arrest or kill Rwandan dissidents in exile.
Over the past two decades, a large number of Rwandan dissidents in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and other countries have been targeted for attack, allegedly by Rwandan security forces.
The latest suspected cases this year were in Mozambique, where a Rwandan journalist was arrested and a prominent Rwandan refugee leader was killed.
“Rwandan transnational repression is exceptionally broad in terms of tactics, targets and geographic reach,” the U.S.-based research and advocacy group Freedom House said in a report this year.
“Rwandans abroad experience digital threats, spyware attacks, family intimidation and harassment, mobility controls, physical intimidation, assault, detention, rendition and assassination. The government has physically targeted Rwandans in at least seven countries since 2014.”