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A Rwandan court has ruled that Paul Rusesabagina, a former hotel manager portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood film about the 1994 genocide, is guilty of terrorism-related charges.

“They should be found guilty for being part of this terror group – MRCD-FLN,” said judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi on Monday. “They attacked people in their homes, or even in their cars on the road travelling.”

Rwandan prosecutors have been seeking a life sentence for Rusesabagina, a 67-year-old former hotelier, who is credited with saving hundreds of lives during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; Rusesabagina actions are said to have inspired the Hollywood film, “Hotel Rwanda”.

Rusesabagina, seen to be a sharp critic of the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame whom he terms a dictator, was arrested on August 2020; this was after the plane he believed was bound for Burundi instead ended up landing in the Rwandan capital Kigali. His family says that Rusesabagina was kidnapped, and has dismissed nine charges levelled against him, including that of terrorism, saying they are a payback for his outspoken views. President Kagame however maintains that Rusesabagina is being tried not because of his fame, but because of lives that were allegedly lost “because of his actions”.

“He is here being tried for that. Nothing to do with the film. Nothing to do with celebrity status,” Kagame said in a recent television interview, declaring that he would be “fairly tried”.

Rusesabagina is accused of supporting a rebel group blamed for deadly gun, grenade and arson attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019.

About Paul Rusesabagina

Rusesabagina was the former manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, where he sheltered hundreds of guests during the genocide that left 800,000 people dead, mostly ethnic Tutsis. An ethnic Hutu, he became well known after the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda depicted his efforts a decade earlier during the genocide to save hundreds of Tutsis at the hotel.

Rwanda’s government accuses Rusesabagina of supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel group which is blamed for the attacks in 2018 and 2019 that killed nine people. Rusesabagina has denied any involvement in the attacks, as much as he is said to have been the founder of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition group of which the FLN seen as the armed wing, is said to stage attacks on Rwanda. Prosecutors in June said Rusesabagina “encouraged and empowered the fighters to commit those terrorist acts”. Additionally, Rwandan officials say Mr Rusesabagina, was arrested under an international warrant for leading “terrorist movements”.

On the other hand, Rusesabagina accuses Rwandan President Paul Kagame of authoritarian tendencies and as a result left Rwanda in 1996 for Belgium and then the United States. Abroad, he has been seen to use his global platform to crusade for political change in Kigali, and developed close ties with opposition groups in exile. His family who have campaigned globally for his release, say Rusesabagina is a political prisoner and accuse the Rwandan authorities of torturing him in custody. Paul Rusesabagina’s family alleges he was kidnapped in Dubai recently and taken to Rwanda.

“We believe he was kidnapped because he would never go to Rwanda on his own will,” his daughter told the BBC.

The man portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood movie about the Rwandan genocide has been charged with terrorism, murder and other crimes. Paul Rusesabagina declined to enter any pleas in court but his lawyers denied the charges against him. In 2011, Mr Rusesabagina was also accused of funding subversion in Rwanda, but no charges were brought. At the time, he denied any wrongdoing and said there was a smear campaign against him.

Mr Rusesabagina’s name featured recently in the terrorism case in Rwanda. The court had heard allegations that the National Liberation Front (FLN) rebel group had received help from Zambia’s former President Edgar Lungu because of his close friendship with Mr Rusesabagina; Mr Lungu’s spokesman denied the allegation in a recent television interview.

What is Hotel Rwanda about?

A decade later, American actor Don Cheadle played Rusesabagina, a moderate Hutu, in the Oscar-nominated blockbuster that brought his story to an international audience. The 2004 film Hotel Rwanda told the story of how Mr Rusesabagina, a middle-class Hutu married to a Tutsi woman, used his influence to convince military officials to secure a safe escape for an estimated 1,200 people who sought shelter at the Mille Collines Hotel in Kigali.

Current status of events around the trial

Supporters and the family of Rusesabagina  say he is charged with terrorism in a trial that is allegedly politically motivated. His trial and 20 other defendants began in February, but the Belgian citizen and US green card holder has boycotted it since March, accusing the court of “unfairness and a lack of independence”.

The United States, which awarded Rusesabagina its Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, along with the European Parliament and Belgium have raised concerns about his transfer to Rwanda and the fairness of his trial. President Kagame’s critics accuse him of not tolerating any opposition; several opposition leaders have been jailed and others fled into exile.

Presiding judge Antoine Muhima has recently defended the proceedings, saying none of the accused has been denied the right to speak. The verdict was initially due in August but was put back until today (Monday), where a Rwandan court has found Rusesabagina guilty of terror-related charges. Between April and July 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days.

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