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

The trial of Paul Rusesabagina, whose story was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie, drew widespread attention and international condemnation.,

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KIGALI, Rwanda — Paul Rusesabagina, the prominent dissident who was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie “Hotel Rwanda,” was found guilty on Monday of forming and funding 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. The court is expected to sentence him later on Monday.

The verdict heralds a dismal moment for Mr. Rusesabagina, a man lauded globally as a humanitarian and activist who displayed courage amid a season of bloodletting.

In her ruling, Judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi said on Monday: “He founded a terrorist organization that attacked Rwanda. He financially contributed to terrorist activities. He approved monthly provisions of funds for these activities He invented a code to hide these activities.”

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-Felix 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.”

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“There has been violation after violation in this trial,” said Carine Kanimba, Mr. Rusesabagina’s daughter. “My father is still an illegally detained man.”Credit…John Thys/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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.

Rights groups criticized the ruling on Monday.

“This was a show trial, rather than a fair judicial inquiry,” said Geoffrey Robertson, who was monitoring the trial for the Clooney Foundation for Justice. “The prosecution evidence against him was unveiled but not challenged.”

Mr. Rusesabagina was the manager of the luxurious Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali when the 1994 genocide began. As Hutu militias 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 of aiding 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.

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Mr. Rusesabagina in court in Kigali in February. Rwandan officials have accused him of exaggerating his role during the genocide in the 1990s.Credit…Muhizi Olivier/Associated Press

In August last year, he boarded a flight to Chicago and then on to Dubai. Later, he traveled on a private jet with Constantin Niyomwungere, a pastor whom he called his “friend” and who he said had invited him to speak to churches in Burundi, Rwanda’s neighbor.

But Mr. Niyomwungere was an agent for Rwandan intelligence and had been part of a setup to lure Mr. Rusesabagina to Rwanda. The private jet, operated by the Greece-based 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.

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

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 had been mistreated. But they did not hide their glee in apprehending him. Rwanda’s spy chief, Maj. Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita, said in an interview with The New York Times that it had been a “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 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.

Mr. Nsabimana was found guilty on Monday of genocide denial and of forging documents.

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Callixte Nsabimana, left, a former rebel spokesman, seen during a court hearing in 2019, recanted his testimony against Mr. Rusesabagina. Credit…Cyril Ndegeya/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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 said, was meant to pressure him to return to trial. The Rwandan authorities said that he had been treated like other inmates and that he had access to meals and a medical doctor.

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