As Paul Rusesabagina, the man depicted as a Rwandan genocide hero in the Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda” awaits trial in Kigali, rights groups and supporters are questioning the circumstances of his detention and the fairness of the legal process.
After arriving in Dubai on August 26, Rusesabagina boarded a private plane and was flown to Rwanda, where he was arrested on charges of sponsoring rebel groups and terrorism-related offenses.
Rusesabagina said in interviews after his detention that he was invited by a friend to visit Burundi and speak at churches in that country. When he boarded the private jet in Dubai, he thought he was on his way to Burundi but was instead flown to Kigali.
Brian Endless, who has worked with Rusesabagina's foundation and is a professor at Loyola University Chicago's Political Science Department, said Rusesabagina was a victim of deception.
“Having known Paul for almost 15 years, there’s not the slightest chance he would have gone to Rwanda voluntarily, because he knew something exactly like this would happen to him if he went to Rwanda voluntarily,” Endless said.
Working from a home in Texas, Rusesabagina has been a staunch opponent of the Rwandan leadership under President Paul Kagame, saying the government works through fear and intimidation. He left Rwanda in 1996 and advocates regime change.
Rwandan authorities accused Rusesabagina of being the “founder, leader and sponsor of violent, armed, extremist terror outfits.” He faces 13 terrorism-related charges. He admitted in court last week that he was a founder of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition party abroad, but denied involvement in crimes.
“The agreement we signed to form MRCD as a political platform included the formation of an armed wing called FLN,” he said in court last week. “We formed the FLN as an armed wing, not as a terrorist group as the prosecution keeps saying ... I do not deny that the FLN committed crimes, but my role was diplomacy.”
Kagame defended Rusesabagina’s detention.
“There was no kidnap, there was not any wrongdoing in the process of his getting here,” Kagame said. “He got here on the basis of what he believed and wanted to do.”
But Endless believes the process was not legal since there was no arrest in Dubai and no extradition paperwork filed.
“Whether you want to call it extraordinary rendition, kidnapping, illegal abduction, when a person gets on a plane and it is under false pretense with the intention of bringing them somewhere to arrest them, that is internationally an illegal process to bring that person to the country,” Endless said.
Supporters, his family and rights groups question whether Rusesabagina can receive a fair trial in his country of birth. He chose a lawyer from a list provided to him by the Rwanda Bar Association. Another lawyer hired for him by his family was denied access to Rusesabagina, Amnesty International reported.
Rusesabagina was denied bail and is appealing that decision.
Representatives from the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Center for Human Rights plan to monitor the upcoming trial as part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative. They said that Rwanda is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which guarantee the accused a fair trial, a lawyer of his choosing and the presumption of innocence.
“One of the main reasons that we monitor trials is to shine a light and to remind governments of their obligations to respect fundamental rights, including the right to a lawyer of one’s choice, as well as numerous other rights,” said Mooya Nyaundi, the ABA Center for Human Rights Senior Staff Attorney.
TrialWatch and the ABA do not yet know whether their representative will be granted access to Rusesabagina’s trial.
Stephen Townley, the senior program manager of TrialWatch said, globally, his organization is seeing a trend of countries not respecting due process and granting fair trials during the pandemic.
“There are very concerning trends, some of them exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, in terms of the instrumentalization of courts against the vulnerable or those who criticize the government,” he told VOA. “But the hope is that trial monitoring, whether in the moment or by virtue of the record that it creates, can induce governments to abide by their international obligations.”
Phil Clark, a professor of international politics at the SOAS University of London who has studied the region, said that while there are troubling questions about Rusesabagina’s detention, he has faith in the country's judiciary system to conduct a fair trial.
“There is often a misconception about the Rwandan judiciary that it is simply the lapdog of Kagame,” he said. “And I think what we’ve seen in the last 10 years is something very different happen. We've actually seen a very independent judiciary begin to rise up in Rwanda, often handing down judgments contrary to the wishes of the national executive.”
But Endless fears for the fate of his friend and colleague in a Rwandan courtroom.
“There is absolutely no way Paul is going to get a free and fair trial in Rwanda,” Endless said. “What we do know is with the highest-profile people, it always goes the way that the government wants it to go and the [way] Kagame’s government wants it to go.”