'Hotel Rwanda' hero Paul Rusesabagina sentenced to 25 years on terrorism charges

His family and attorneys have condemned the trial as a "sham."

September 20, 2021, 5:30 PM

LONDON -- After spending more than a year behind bars and standing trial, the man who inspired the acclaimed 2004 film "Hotel Rwanda" was found guilty of terrorism-related offenses on Monday.

Former hotelier Paul Rusesabagina, 67, was tried in Rwanda's High Court alongside 20 other defendants on a number of charges. While reading the verdict before the courtroom in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, Judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi said the evidence shows that Rusesabagina and the co-accused were part of a terrorist group and committed acts of terrorism, "which they later bragged about in different announcements and videos."

"They attacked people in their homes, or even in their cars on the road traveling," Mukamurenzi added.

Rusesabagina, who has maintained his innocence, was convicted on eight of nine terrorism-related charges, including membership in a terrorist group, murder and abduction. He was found not guilty of founding a terrorist group. He was subsequently sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The charges stem from Rusesabagina's leadership of an exiled opposition coalition called the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change, known by its French acronym MRCD. In 2018, there were a series of deadly attacks on villages in southern Rwanda, near the country's border with Burundi, and Rwandan authorities inculpated the National Liberation Front, or FLN, which is the armed wing of the MRCD. In a video statement released later that year, Rusesabagina pledged his "unreserved support" for the FLN, declared Kagame's government to be "the enemy of the Rwandan people" and called for "any means possible to bring about change."

Rusesabagina has acknowledged that the MRCD had an armed wing but denied his involvement. The 20 other defendants in the closely watched trial were accused of being FLN organizers and fighters.

Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo said the evidence against Rusesabagina and the co-accused was "indisputable," and that "the people of Rwanda will feel safer now justice has been delivered."

"The trial has been a long and painful ordeal for the victims of FLN attacks, particularly for those who were called upon to testify," Makolo said in a statement Monday. "Our thoughts today are with these brave witnesses, and the family and friends of the victims."

Rusesabagina's family and attorneys condemned the trial as a "sham," saying there was "no credible evidence" and that his conviction was "inevitable."

"It's quite a strange experience actually, to watch a judgement when you already know the outcome," Rusesabagina's lead counsel, Kate Gibson, told ABC News on Monday. "It's not a surprising day, but it's still nonetheless a difficult one."

Gibson said there is an appeal process in Rwanda but that their team is "pursuing a lot of other legal avenues."

Despite the ruling, Rusesabagina's family said they have not lost hope.

"I believe my father will come home. He's innocent," Rusesabagina's daughter, Carine Kanimba, told ABC News on Monday. "We're not discouraged."

PHOTO: A general view shows 20 co-accused, excluding "Hotel Rwanda" hero Paul Rusesabagina, who did not physically attend court for the verdict, in a courtroom in Kigali, Rwanda, on Sept. 20, 2021.
A general view shows 20 co-accused, excluding "Hotel Rwanda" hero Paul Rusesabagina, who did not physically attend court for the verdict, in a courtroom in Kigali, Rwanda, on Sept. 20, 2021.
Eugene Uwimana/EPA via Shutterstock

Rusesabagina, a married father of six, was the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when divisions between the East African nation's two main ethnic groups came to a head. The Rwandan government, controlled by extremist members of the Hutu ethnic majority, launched a systemic campaign with its allied Hutu militias to wipe out the Tutsi ethnic minority, slaughtering more than 800,000 people over the course of 100 days, mostly Tutsis and the moderate Hutus who tried to protect them, according to estimates from the United Nations.

More than 1,200 people took shelter in the Hotel des Mille Collines during what is often described as the darkest chapter of Rwanda's history. Rusesabagina, who is of both Hutu and Tutsi descent, said he used his job and connections with the Hutu elite to protect the hotel's guests from massacre. The events were later immortalized in "Hotel Rwanda," with American actor Don Cheadle's portrayal of Rusesabagina earning an Academy Award nomination for best actor in 2005.

After the movie's release, Rusesabagina rose to fame and was lauded as a hero. He also became a prominent and outspoken critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has been in office for the last two decades. Some genocide survivors who stayed at the Hotel des Mille Collines have since accused Rusesabagina of exaggerating his role in saving them or even profiting from it.

Rusesabagina, who fled Rwanda with his family in 1996 and is now a Belgian citizen and permanent U.S. resident, traveled to Dubai on Aug. 27, 2020, to meet up with a Burundi-born pastor who Rusesabagina alleges had invited him to speak at churches in Burundi about his experience during the Rwandan genocide. Later that night, the pair hopped on a private jet that Rusesabagina believed would take them to Burundi's capital, according to Rusesabagina's international legal team.

Rusesabagina did not know that the pastor was working as an informant for the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) and had tricked him into boarding a chartered flight to Kigali.

Rwandan prosecutors allege that Rusesabagina wanted to go to Burundi to coordinate with rebel groups based there and in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rusesabagina's whereabouts were unknown for several days until Rwandan authorities paraded him in handcuffs during a press conference at the RIB's headquarters in Kigali on Aug. 31, 2020. Rusesabagina alleges he was bound and blindfolded by RIB agents who took him from the plane to an undisclosed location where he was gagged and tortured before being jailed, according to an affidavit that includes a memorialization of a conversation between Rusesabagina and one of his Rwandan lawyers. The RIB has denied the claims.

Rusesabagina has been held at a Kigali prison since then, including 258 days in solitary confinement, according to his international legal team. The U.N.'s Nelson Mandela Rules state that keeping someone in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days is torture.

Rusesabagina's family and attorneys have accused Rwandan authorities of kidnapping him and bringing him to the country illegally. The Rwandan government has admitted to paying for the plane that took Rusesabagina to Kigali, but Kagame said there was no wrongdoing because he was "brought here on the basis of what he believed and wanted to do." The court ultimately ruled that Rusesabagina was tricked into coming back to Rwanda but was not kidnapped and thus the charges against him couldn't be dropped.

PHOTO: Paul Rusesabagina attends a court hearing in Kigali, Rwanda, Feb. 26, 2021.
Paul Rusesabagina attends a court hearing in Kigali, Rwanda, Feb. 26, 2021.
Muhizi Olivier/AP, FILE

Rusesabagina's trial in his home country has captured worldwide attention since it began in February, with his family and lawyers calling on the international community to intervene. They said his privileged documents are routinely confiscated in prison and he has been denied access to his international legal team, including Gibson, who is based in Geneva and has previously represented Rwandan accused before the U.N. International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda.

They have also expressed concern about his health and treatment behind bars. They said he is a cancer survivor who suffers from hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and that he has been denied his prescribed medication.

"The only thing that has been surprising in watching this horror show unfold over the last year has been the brazenness and openness with which the Rwandan authorities have been willing to systematically violate all of the fair trial rights to which Paul was entitled," Gibson told ABC News ahead of Monday's verdict. "The Rwandans had every opportunity to showcase their judicial system and put on the fairest of fair trials. They did the opposite."

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based international human rights watchdog, has said that Rusesabagina's arrest "amounted to an enforced disappearance, a serious violation of international law" and that "Rwanda has an established track record of using unlawful, cloak-and-dagger methods to target those it perceives to be a threat to the ruling party." In reaction to Rusesabagina's conviction, the group called the trial "flawed" and said it was "emblematic of the [Rwandan] government's overreach and manipulation of the justice system."

"The Rwandan authorities have the right to prosecute genuine security offenses, but they have undermined their case every step of the way, starting with the manner in which they unlawfully detained Paul Rusesabagina, through multiple violations of the right to a fair trial," Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Monday. "Unsurprisingly, we saw once again that the Rwanda courts are overpowered by political influence."

A ruling in the high-profile case was expected a month ago but was postponed, with no reason given for the delay. Rusesabagina, who has been boycotting the court proceedings since March claiming he was not getting a fair trial, did not physically attend Monday's session, according to his family and lawyers.

Rusesabagina's family told ABC News that they won't be able to speak to him until Friday, when he is allowed his weekly five-minute telephone call from prison.

"If the international community does not step in, he will probably be in jail for the rest of his life," the family said in a statement Monday.

The United States is "concerned" by Rusesabagina's conviction in Rwanda, according to U.S. Department of State spokesperson Ned Price.

"The reported lack of fair trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict. We have consistently highlighted the importance of respect for all applicable legal protections throughout these proceedings and have raised concerns that these protections were not addressed in an impartial manner consistent with Rwanda’s international commitments," Price said in a statement Monday. "We are concerned by the objections Mr. Rusesabagina raised related to his lack of confidential, unimpeded access to his lawyers and relevant case documents and his initial lack of access to counsel. We urge the Government of Rwanda to take steps to examine these shortcomings in Mr. Rusesabagina’s case and establish safeguards to prevent similar outcomes in the future."