The Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda” earned Paul Rusesabagina international praise for saving hundreds of lives during the 1994 genocide in the Central African nation. In his home country he is now being tried as a terrorist.
The fierce critic of the powerful President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, Rusesabagina (66), had lived in Belgium and the United States for 25 years. However, he was lured back to Rwanda last year, where he was arrested and charged with financing terrorism, arson, armed robbery, kidnapping and murder. If convicted, he could be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.
“As the best-known critic of President Kagame, Paul Rusesabagina posed a threat to his international image,” said Timothy Longman, professor of political science and international relations at Boston University.
The Foreign Ministry, which previously criticized the Rwandan authorities for failing to follow due process, has urged the government to respect the rule of law and ensure that Rusesabagina is treated fairly.
“We are very concerned about public statements, including from some Rwandan authorities, that correspondence between Rusesabagina and his lawyers has been intercepted,” a State Department spokesman told NBC News after a Justice Department leaked video revealed that Rusesabagina had received communications from the prison Officials were called: “We urge the Rwandan government to make fully transparent both the means and the legal basis for the arrival of Mr. Rusesabagina in Rwanda.”
Congress leaders have also raised concerns about the case and sent a non-partisan letter to Kagame requesting that Rusesabagina be returned to his family. Last month the European Parliament also voted to investigate the arrest of Rusesabagina.
On March 12, Rusesabagina said he would no longer attend the trial because his “fundamental rights” were being denied. However, Rwandan prosecutors said the evidence against him is strong.
Download the NBC News App for breaking news and politics
Rusesabagina and Kagame became known for their heroism in 1994 when Hutus extremist targeted the Tutsi ethnic minority population, resulting in over 800,000 deaths.
The western countries have only evacuated their own nationals.
While running the luxurious Hotel des Mille Collines, Rusesabagina used top-quality alcohol and Cuban cigars to distract extremists from murdering Rwandans posing as his guests.
“If you stay friends with monsters, you can find cracks in their armor that you can take advantage of,” Rusesabagina wrote in 2006 in his treatise “An Ordinary Man”.
Meanwhile, the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by Kagame liberated the capital, Kigali, ending one of the bloodiest 100-day journeys in modern history.
The RPF has held power since then. Under Kagame, who became president in 2000, the former Belgian colony grew rapidly thanks to foreign investment from companies and organizations such as Starbucks and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
However, human rights groups have criticized Kagame for stifling political debate. Freedom House, a US-based human rights group, said Rwanda has a history of ubiquitous surveillance and alleged assassinations, a pattern that has led countries like Sweden and South Africa to expel Rwandan diplomats.
“While Kagame can be commended for many things, especially good economic management, he was extremely intolerant of criticism,” Longman said.
Rusesabagina’s star would rise if Don Cheadle’s portrayal of him in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda was nominated for an Oscar and put him on the red carpet alongside Angelina Jolie.
He used his public profile as an opportunity to criticize Kagame.
In 2017, Rusesabagina mobilized the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), a coalition of banned political parties that opposed Kagame and called for more democratic freedom in Rwanda.
In a video earlier this year, Rusesabagina urged supporters “to use all means to bring about change in Rwanda”.
Now prosecutors have linked those words to a series of attacks by the MRCD-backed National Liberation Front in Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest in 2018 and 2019, in which nine civilians were killed.
Rusesabagina’s family has called the trial a “fraud” and said they have no command over the National Liberation Front.
However, prosecutors have filed extensive charges against Rusesabagina and 17 co-defendants, including a 2011 referral allegedly sent by Rusesabagina to a rebel Hutu commander.
NBC News was unable to confirm these claims and the Justice Department declined a request for comment.
Belgian police also raided Rusesabagina’s home in Brussels in 2019 and confiscated computers, telephones and documents that, according to Rwandan prosecutors, contained evidence of Rusesabagina’s connection with the National Liberation Front.
The circumstances surrounding Rusesabagina’s arrest have also sparked controversy.
Recent legal proceedings suggest that Rusesabagina was put on a private plane in Burundi after a flight from Chicago to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in August with false offers.
Instead, the flight landed in Rwanda, where Rusesabagina was arrested and did not appear in public for days.
His family describes it as a kidnapping, but Kagame denied wrongdoing during an appearance on state television in September, calling the operation “flawless”.
The Rusesabagina international defense team, with whom he is not allowed to speak, says the Rwandan government should have diplomatically applied for his extradition.
“We are afraid that he will die in prison,” said his daughter Anaise Kanimba, citing health concerns for her father. “The Biden administration should stop believing that a fair trial is possible.”
The Rwandan Attorney General Aimable Havugiyaremye said Rusesabagina’s right to a fair trial is protected and the trial is “open and transparent”.