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A Rwandan court on Monday found Paul Rusesabagina guilty of belonging to a group linked to terrorism. The man who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda” was sentenced to 25 years in prison in a trial that human rights watchdogs and other critics of Rwanda's repressive government have described as an act of political retaliation.
Rusesabagina, who is credited with saving ethnic Tutsis during Rwanda's 1994 genocide and was a recipient of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, boycotted the announcement of the verdict, saying he didn’t expect justice in a trial he called a “sham”.
The US resident and Belgian citizen was convicted on nine charges, including the formation of an illegal armed group, membership in a terrorist group, financing a terror group, murder and abduction. He was charged along with 20 other people. Prosecutors had sought a life sentence.
The circumstances surrounding Rusesabagina’s arrest last year, his limited access to an independent legal team and his reported worsening health have drawn international concern for the 67-year-old, who left Rwanda in 1996.
Rusesabagina has acknowledged membership in the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), a group opposed to Rwandan President Paul Kagame's rule, but denied responsibility for violence carried out by its armed wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN). Rusesabagina has denied all the charges against him.
The case has had a high profile since Rusesabagina was arrested last year on arrival from Dubai after what he described as a kidnapping by Rwandan authorities. Human Rights Watch said at the time that his arrest amounted to an enforced disappearance, which it called a serious violation of international law.
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.
After the genocide, he became disillusioned with the new Tutsi-dominated government led by Kagame, the rebel leader-turned-president whose forces ended the mass killings. He accused Kagame of authoritarian tendencies and left Rwanda in 1996, living in Belgium and then the US.
Since being portrayed by actor Don Cheadle as the hero of the 2004 film "Hotel Rwanda", Rusesabagina has emerged as a prominent international critic of President Kagame.
His supporters called the trial a sham, and proof of Kagame's ruthless treatment of political opponents.
The other defendants include Callixte Nsabimana, popularly known as Sankara, who was a spokesman for the FLN and told the court that Rusesabagina was not a member of the armed wing. But the judges said the two groups were indistinguishable, referring to them as the MRCD-FLN.
Rusesabagina became a global celebrity after the film, which depicted him risking his life to shelter hundreds as the boss of a luxury hotel in the Rwandan capital during the 100-day genocide when Hutu ethnic extremists killed more than 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi minority. Cheadle was nominated for an Oscar for the role.
Rusesabagina used his newfound fame to highlight what he described as rights violations by the government of Kagame, a Tutsi rebel commander who took power after his forces captured Kigali and halted the genocide.
Earlier this month, Kagame dismissed criticism of the case, saying Rusesabagina was in the dock not because of his fame but over the lives lost "because of his actions".
‘Show trial’ marred by torture allegations
Rusesabagina had refused to take part in the trial and has not appeared in court in months, after attending the first few hearings in a bright pink prison uniform, face mask and handcuffs.
The US – which awarded Rusesabagina its Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 – along with the European Parliament and Belgium have been among those to voice concerns about his transfer to Rwanda and the fairness of his trial.
Kagame's government accused Rusesabagina of supporting the FLN, which is blamed for attacks in 2018 and 2019 that killed nine people.
While Rusesabagina denies any involvement in the attacks, he was a founder of the MRCD.
"MRCD-FLN committed terror acts. MRCD cannot be separated from military acts" of FLN, said Judge Beatrice Mukamurenz.
"The court finds that Rusesabagina's role in founding the FLN, provision of funds to the rebels, purchase of communication tools for the rebels all constitute the crime of committing terrorism."
During the trial, his co-defendants gave conflicting testimony about the level of Rusesabagina's involvement with the FLN and its fighters.
Abroad, he used 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.
The Hotel Rwanda Foundation, which supports Rusesabagina, earlier this month described the court proceedings as a "show trial" and said the government had failed to provide any credible evidence against him.
"Paul's family and team knew that he would be declared 'guilty' the moment he was kidnapped – no trial was needed," it said.
In July, meanwhile, an international media investigation claimed that Rusesabagina's daughter Carine Kanimba was spied on using Pegasus malware developed by Israeli company NSO.
Investigators confirmed that a cell phone belonging to Kanimba, a US-Belgian dual national, had been compromised multiple times.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)