/ 26 September 2021

‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero Paul Rusesabagina gets 25 years behind bars

Paul Rusesabagina Rwanda Trial Arrest Gettyimages 1228699932
‘Political prisoner’: Rwanda’s Paul Rusesabagina

Twenty-one people were found guilty of terrorism in a Kigali courtroom late last month, in connection with a series of alleged terrorist attacks in southern Rwanda in which nine people were killed.

Among them was Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero of the film Hotel Rwanda, who is credited with saving hundreds of lives during the Rwandan genocide. The 67-year-old was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Rusesabagina was a leader in exile of a banned opposition party, whose armed wing is accused of carrying out the attacks.

He did not return from exile voluntarily: when he boarded a private plane from Dubai to Kigali last year, he was under the impression it was going somewhere else. “The security threat posed by Rusesabagina’s MRCD-FLN militia was serious enough for Rwandan law enforcement to issue an arrest warrant and trick him into coming to Rwanda so that he could be arrested and tried in a court of law for terror offences,” Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo told The Continent.

Rusesabagina’s conviction has once again put Rwanda’s human rights record in the international spotlight. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the verdict and the trial as unfair and politically motivated.

“The Rwandan authorities have the right to prosecute genuine security offences, but they have undermined their case every step of the way, starting with the manner in which they unlawfully detained Rusesabagina, through multiple violations of the right to a fair trial,” said Human Rights Watch’s Lewis Mudge. “Unsurprisingly, we saw once again that the Rwanda courts are overpowered by political influence.” 

‘Political prisoner’ 

Rusesabagina’s daughter, Carine Kanimba, told The Continent from Brussels that the family does not accept the verdict or the legitimacy of the court.

“The verdict means nothing,” she said. “My father is a political prisoner. He must be released now.”

At the time of writing, Rusesabagina’s family had not yet been able to speak to him about the verdict. The only contact they have with him is a five-minute telephone call each week, which they assume is monitored by authorities.

“We can feel the tension; he is not at ease. We are so afraid of what might happen to him as soon as we hang up. It’s super short. We speak super fast, to give him as much information as possible,” said Kanimba. “They try to limit what he knows, because they know that info allows him to make smart decisions about how to defend himself.”

Kanimba claimed that she and other family members had been subjected to Rwandan government surveillance in the wake of her father’s arrest. According to Amnesty, her phone had been infected with Pegasus spyware since January this year (Pegasus is powerful software that allows governments to access all data on an infected mobile device.) 

“There are no reasons to spy on me other than this is what a dictatorship does,” Kanimba said. “They had access to my location, my GPS, my photos, my calendars, my instagram, my Twitter, my Gmail. They also listened in to meetings.”

The Rwandan government spokesperson denied these allegations. “These are bogus claims. Rwanda does not have or use this software. And as you know, it is technically impossible to attribute an infection to any country, or even to confirm what the infection is: you can’t tell it’s Pegasus versus something else. Those making these allegations, like Kanimba, are simply seeking attention, riding on the ongoing campaign to promote disinformation about Rwanda.”

Rusesabagina has 30 days to appeal the verdict.  

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here