'Hotel Rwanda' hero never joined rebels, co-accused says

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FILE PHOTO: Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood movie about Rwanda's 1994 genocide, talks to his lawyer Gatera Gashabana inside the courtroom in Kigali

By Clement Uwiringiyimana

KIGALI (Reuters) - Paul Rusesabagina, the ex-hotelier immortalised in the film "Hotel Rwanda", never belonged to a rebel group that sought to overthrow President Paul Kagame, one of the former rebels accused with him of terrorism told a court on Wednesday.

"Rusesabagina was never a member of the National Liberation Front (FLN), he was a civilian ... He is not a soldier," former FLN spokesman Callixte Sankara told the court in Kigali.

He said the prosecution had presented no evidence to substantiate its claim that Rusesabagina had given orders to the FLN, which has claimed responsibility for attacks in past years that it said were aimed at ousting the president.

Sankara is one of 20 Rwandans being tried alongside Rusesabagina, who is 67. Prosecutors describe them as fighters for the FLN. Most were captured in southern Rwanda in 2018, after attacks.

Rusesabagina, however, told the New York Times last September, in an interview supervised by officials, that he had boarded a private plane in Dubai weeks earlier, believing it was taking him to Burundi, only to find that it had landed in Rwanda, where he was arrested.

Rusesabagina faces 13 charges, including forming an armed rebel group -- the FLN -- and terrorism.

The trial began in February but Rusesabagina stopped attending after a few weeks, telling prison officials he did not expect justice from the court.

The trial has shone a spotlight on Kagame, whose government says Rusesabagina directed the 2018 attacks from abroad.

Rights groups say the trial is only the latest example of Kagame using authoritarian means to quell political opposition and extend his 21 years in power.

Prosecutors have requested a life sentence for Rusesabagina, whose family says he is in poor health and being mistreated in prison.

His case has also attracted international attention because of "Hotel Rwanda", a 2004 Oscar-nominated movie based on his life.

The movie shows how he used his connections as a hotel manager to save ethnic Tutsis fleeing slaughter by Hutus in Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in the genocide. Rusesabagina's father was Hutu, his mother and wife - Tutsi.

Rusesabagina later obtained Belgian citizenship and moved to Texas.

He became a vocal critic of Kagame and called for armed resistance to the government in a YouTube video in 2018, saying that change could not be achieved by democratic means. The year before, Kagame had won re-election with 99% of the vote.

Rusesabagina said in a pre-trial hearing that he had contributed 20,000 euros ($24,000) to the FLN, the military wing of the Movement for Democratic Change, a political party that he co-chaired from exile. But he denied any wrongdoing.

More defendants are due to present closing remarks on Thursday and Friday.

(Reporting by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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