By Our Reporter | Xclusive News | 4 min Read
A man who was portrayed in a film as a life-saving hero during the Rwandan genocide has been convicted of terrorism by a court in Rwanda.
Paul Rusesabagina, 67, was found guilty of backing a rebel group from exile which killed nine civilians in 2018.
His family have alleged that he was taken to Rwanda by force. They have also said he did not have a fair trial.
Rusesabagina’s journey from celebrated figure to state enemy happened as his criticism of the government grew.
Initially he was hailed for what he did to prevent some people being killed during the genocide.
In a period of 100 days from April 1994, 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group, were slaughtered.
In the Oscar-nominated movie Hotel Rwanda, Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle, was shown how as hotel manager he managed to protect more than 1,000 people who had sought shelter.
Some survivors have gone on to question this version of events.
But as Rusesabagina’s profile was raised following the release of the film in 2005, his criticism of the post-genocide government and President Paul Kagame gained a wider audience.
He spoke about human rights abuses and alleged that the government was targeting Hutus.
Living in exile, Rusesabagina went on to lead an opposition coalition, which had an armed wing – the National Liberation Front (FLN).
In a 2018 video message, he called for regime change saying that “the time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda”.
The FLN was accused of carrying out attacks in 2018 in which the authorities said nine people were killed. But Rusesabagina said he never asked anyone to target civilians.
Rusesabagina’s family have said that he was kidnapped and forcibly taken to Rwanda last year.
But in court, one witness spoke about how he had tricked Rusesabagina onto a plane in Dubai by telling him it was flying to neighbouring Burundi.
He withdrew from the trial in March this year, shortly after it began, saying that he was not being given a fair hearing.
His daughter, Carine Kanimba, was reported to have told the BBC that he did not have proper access to his lawyers and that the president was “the only judge in the court”.
Twenty others were tried alongside Rusesabagina, some of whom were members of the FLN who implicated him in their evidence.
The prosecution has asked for a life sentence for Rusesabagina.
Since being portrayed by actor Don Cheadle as the hero of the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, Rusesabagina – based in the United States – emerged as a prominent critic of President Paul Kagame.
Author Michela Wrong, who recently published a book on Rwanda, told Al Jazeera the verdict was clearly a message to the opposition.
“This seems like a show trial, which is really aimed at silencing dissent, making sure that anyone standing up, criticising and challenging Kagame is simply will not be allowed to do that,” she said.
“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 was targeted for challenging Kagame’s government for years, said Wrong.
A Belgian citizen and US resident, Rusesabagina was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts during the genocide.
Rusesabagina denied all charges against him, while his supporters described the trial as proof of Kagame’s ruthless treatment of political opponents.
The Rwandan government had said Rusesabagina would get a fair trial, but it has drawn international concern.
In December, 36 US senators wrote to Kagame, urging him to release Rusesabagina.
Prosecutors had sought a life sentence on nine charges, including “terrorism”, arson, taking hostages, and forming an armed rebel group that he directed from abroad.
Rusesabagina became a global celebrity after the Hollywood film, which depicted him risking his life to shelter hundreds as the manager of a luxury hotel in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, during the 100-day genocide when ethnic Hutus killed more than 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi minority.
Cheadle was nominated for an Oscar for the role. Rusesabagina used his fame to highlight what he described as rights violations by the government of Kagame, a Tutsi rebel commander who took power after his forces captured Kigali and halted the genocide.
Rusesabagina’s trial began in February, six months after he arrived in Kigali on a flight from Dubai.
His supporters say he was kidnapped. The Rwandan government suggested he was tricked into boarding a private plane.
Human Rights Watch said at the time his arrest amounted to an “enforced disappearance”, which it called a serious violation of international law.
Rusesabagina said he was gagged and tortured before he was jailed, but Rwandan authorities denied it.