Rwanda’s High Court has sentenced Paul Rusesabagina of “Hotel Rwanda” fame to 25 years in prison after finding him guilty on terrorism-related charges.
Rusesabagina, 67, has denied the charges. He has 30 days to appeal the sentence.
The court convicted and sentenced the hotelier-turned-activist Monday following a trial that critics say was unfair with a pre-determined outcome.
Rusesabagina and 20 others were charged with offenses for their alleged connections to the National Forces of Liberation, or the FLN, a militia group the government accuses of carrying out terrorist attacks in Rwanda.
In announcing the sentence, presiding Judge Antoine Muhima told a Kigali courtroom that Rusesabagina was guilty of creating and being a member of a terrorist organization.
Rwandan Government Spokeswoman Yolande Makolo said on Twitter that evidence against the defendants was “indisputable.”
A state-controlled newspaper had earlier reported that prosecutors were seeking a life sentence for Rusesabagina, a prominent critic of President Paul Kagame and his government.
Family and advocates say Rusesabagina, who left his home country in 1996 and is a Belgian citizen and a U.S. resident, was effectively tricked into returning to Rwanda in August 2020. After flying to the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai, Rusesabagina boarded a private plane and was flown to Kigali, where he was arrested.
Rusesabagina said in interviews after his detention that he believed he was flying to Burundi to speak in churches at the invitation of a friend.
Kate Gibson, one of Rusesabagina’s lawyers, spoke to VOA English to Africa’s Daybreak Africa radio program from Geneva and said Rusesabagina never stood a chance in court.
“It’s our opinion that this is the end of a story that was scripted and written even before Mr. Rusesabagina was kidnapped,” she said. “But there was always a deliberate and decided plan in place that he would be put on trial and convicted by the Rwandan judicial authorities.”
Gibson said Rusesabagina did not receive a fair trial, saying lawyers weren’t allowed to bring documents to him and when documents got through for discussion, they were confiscated. The trial, she said, was “so far below internationally recognized standards for a fair trial that the verdict itself is of no particular consequence.”
Independent observers seem to agree. Representatives from the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Center for Human Rights, who have been monitoring the trial as part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch, echoed Gibson’s sentiment.
“This so-called trial is not a real adversarial proceeding: it has become a spectacle in which the state’s version of events is not allowed to be challenged. Any conviction that emerges from it cannot be considered credible as it will be based on evidence that has not been properly examined.” Geoffrey Robertson QC, the TrialWatch Expert said.
“It’s an empty verdict because the proceedings that went before it was so manifestly unfair,” Gibson said. Basic rights such as legal assistance, the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare and the right to be presumed innocent, were denied, she added.
“Days after Paul’s [Rusesabagina] arrest, high ranking members of the Rwandan authorities including the president [Paul Kagame] came out and said that Paul was guilty,” she said.
The United States also issued a statement of concern about the trial and doubt over the verdict, noting in particular Rusesabagina's complaints about the lack of access to his lawyers and documents.
“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,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.
VOA English to Africa Service’s James Butty contributed to the report. Some information for this report came from Reuters.