A former manager of a luxury hotel who was portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood film about the 1994 Rwandan genocide has been found guilty of being part of a group responsible for terrorist attacks.
Paul Rusesabagina, 67, was arrested last year on arrival from Dubai after what he described as a kidnapping by the Rwandan authorities.
He was portrayed by actor Don Cheadle as the hero of 2004 film Hotel Rwanda and emerged as a prominent critic of President Paul Kagame.
He was not present in court to hear the verdict, having boycotted proceedings since March, with his family campaigning globally for his release and accusing the Rwandan government of torturing him for his anti-Kagame views.
His daughter, Anaise Kanimba, told Sky News: “We were expecting this because the Rwandan authorities went above and beyond over the last year to take away all his rights, all his rights of defence, and so they’ve really put on a sham trial in the kangaroo courts.
“And we knew that it was going to be a guilty verdict. So right now, you know, what we need to do is to find a way to get him released and to get him out of there.”
Rusesabagina had denied all the charges against him, while his supporters called it proof of the Kagame regime’s ruthless treatment of opponents.
He was found guilty of the formation of an illegal armed group and membership of a terrorist organisation.
The ruling comes more than a year after he disappeared during a visit to Dubai and then emerged days later in Rwanda in handcuffs, accused of supporting the armed wing of the opposition political platform, Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change.
The group had claimed some responsibility for attacks in 2018 and 2019 in the south of the country in which nine Rwandans died.
Rusesabagina maintained his innocence, and his family alleges he was kidnapped and taken to Rwanda against his will.
But the court ruled that he was not kidnapped when he was tricked into boarding a chartered flight.
Sky’s Africa correspondent John Sparks said: “Living in exile, the former hotelier was lured onto a private plane that he believed was destined for Burundi in August, 2020. Instead, the aircraft was flown to the Rwandan capital where was arrested and charged with nine terror-related offences.
“The Rwandan authorities accused him of supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN) a rebel group blamed for a series of deadly gun, grenade and arson attacks in 2018 and 2019.
“Rusesabagina denied involvement in the attacks but he was a key member of an opposition coalition linked to the FLN and was seen pledging support to the militants in a video in 2018.”
The Belgian citizen and US resident, who was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, has said his arrest was in response to his criticism of the long-time Rwandan president over alleged human rights abuses.
Judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi said of 20 defendants, including Rusesabagina: “They should be found guilty for being part of this terror group – MRCD-FLN.
“They attacked people in their homes, or even in their cars on the road travelling.”
Prosecutors had sought a life sentence on nine charges, including terrorism, arson, taking hostages and forming an armed rebel group.
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 Kigali. When machete-armed mobs gathered at the gates of the ‘Hotel des Mille Collines’, the hotelier distracted ring-leaders with offers of beer and pleaded with his contacts for food to feed his guests.
The film covered 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 his role in the movie, which is listed by the American Film Institute as one of the most inspirational of all time.
Rusesabagina’s trial began in February, six months after he arrived in Kigali on the flight from Dubai.
Human Rights Watch said at the time that his arrest amounted to an enforced disappearance, which it called a serious violation of international law.
Ms Kanimba told Sky News: “Once injustice happens somewhere it can happen everywhere else and that’s why the international community needs to rise up. We’ve seen this in Russia, we’ve seen this in Belarus and we don’t want to see this in any other countries as well.”
Last December, 36 US senators wrote to Mr Kagame to urge him to release Rusesabagina.