Hotel Rwanda’ hero given 25-year sentence: an unsurprising verdict

Paul Rusesabagina, a prominent government critic, attends a court hearing in Kigali, Rwanda on February 26, 2021. Rwanda’s High Court Chamber for International and Cross-border Crimes ruled that it has jurisdiction to try him. © 2021 AP Photo/Muhizi Olivie

By The Rwandan Lawyer

Introduction

Rusesabagina was targeted for challenging Kagame’s government for years, said Wrong. The prosecution evidence against him was unveiled but not challenged. Given Mr. Rusesabagina’s age and poor health, this severe sentence is likely to be a death sentence. This was a show trial, rather than a fair judicial inquiry,” said Geoffrey Robertson QC, the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch expert on the case. The verdict sentencing the hero of the hotel Rwanda to 25 years of imprisonment stirred diplomatic and legal turmoil around the world all proclaiming the innocence of the hero and denouncing a masquerade trial violating all the guarantees of a fair trial. Are hereby the Rwandan authorities convicting a real terrorist or just a political enemy they managed to capture? The present analysis strives to respond to a series of questions of this kind.

1. Facts

1) Charges and verdict

Rusesabagina is best known as the manager of the Hotel Mille Collines, in central Kigali, where hundreds of people sought protection during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. After the genocide he fled Rwanda, fearing for his safety. He later became a fierce critic of the government of Rwanda and co-founded the opposition Rwandan Movement for Democratic, MRCD), a coalition of opposition groups, which has an armed wing known as the National Liberation Forces FLN). The case has had a high profile since Rusesabagina, 67, was arrested in August 2020 after what he described as a kidnapping from Dubai by Rwandan authorities. He was accused of supporting an armed wing of his opposition political platform, the 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.“He founded a terrorist organization that attacked Rwanda, he financially contributed to terrorist activities,” Justice Beatrice Mukamurenzi said of Rusesabagina. Rwandan prosecutors had sought a life sentence the former hotelier, credited with saving over 1,200 lives during the 1994 genocide. But Mukamurenzi said the term “should be reduced to 25 years” as it was his first conviction.

2) World reaction to ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero’s prison sentence

Family, governments, and rights groups say Paul Rusesabagina, who saved hundreds of lives during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, did not receive a fair trial. Rusesabagina’s daughter said charges against him were ‘completely invented’ [File: Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP]. Rusesabagina, whose heroics during the genocide were portrayed in the 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda, boycotted the verdict on Monday after declaring he did not epect justice in a trial he called a “sham”. This is how his family and the rest of the world reacted to the verdict:

1°Daughter

Rusesabagina’s daughter, Carine Kanimba, said her father should be released and allowed to come home.“This verdict means nothing for us. Our father was kidnapped,” Kanimba told Al Jazeera.“He was dragged across international borders in violation of international law. My father knows that his rights were violated … that’s why he decided to step out of the trial, and this is all political,” she said adding that her father was “a political prisoner”.“The charges are completely invented.”The daughter said her family was “very worried” about Rusesabagina’s health and was afraid he would die in prison.

2°United States

The US voiced its concern over the Rusesabagina case saying the former hotelier did not get a fair trial.“The United States is concerned by the Government of Rwanda’s conviction of US lawful permanent resident Paul Rusesabagina,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.“The reported lack of fair trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict.”“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,” he added.Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro said the decision by the Rwandan court was “deeply disappointing”.

3°Belgium

“Despite repeated appeals from Belgium on this matter … Mr Rusesabagina did not benefit from a fair and equitable trial; particularly with regard to the rights of the defence,” Belgium’s Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes said in a statement.“The presumption of innocence was not respected either. These elements de facto call into question the trial and the judgement.”The statement said Wilmes would hold talks with her Rwandan counterpart this week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.“In the meantime, Belgium remains in close contact with Mr Rusesabagina,” it said.

4°TrialWatch

“This was a show trial, rather than a fair judicial inquiry,” said Geoffrey Robertson QC, the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch expert on the case.“The prosecution evidence against him was unveiled but not challenged. Given Mr. Rusesabagina’s age and poor health, this severe sentence is likely to be a death sentence.”

5°Amnesty International

There were “numerous fair trial violations including Rusesabagina’s arrest under false pretenses and unlawful transfer to Rwanda, enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention following his rendition to Rwanda”, according to Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes.

“Fair trial violations in the case were a disservice to the course of justice and to the victims and survivors of the attacks for which Rusesabagina and others were accused of being responsible.”

6°Human Rights Watch

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said there were “multiple violations” of the right to a fair trial and that “Rwanda courts are overpowered by political influence.”

2. Analysis

The verdict of the chamber of the Rwandan high court in charge of international crimes sentencing Paul Rusesabagina to 25 years of imprisonment gives rise to legal and political observations which should be noted.

1) Flawed procedure in the beginning

Circumventing the normal proceedings to request extradition of a suspect citizen, Rwandan authorities infringed the legislation governing the transfer of criminals and then Rusesabagina Paul was overtly victim of unlawful abduction, arrest and detention. While Rwandan judicial, prosecutorial and investigative staff had previously carried out a field visit in Belgium to enquire about the eventual proofs of criminality of the Hotel Rwanda Hero, the State deviated this normal procedure internationally recognized to get wanted people reflected by the judicial cooperation and preferred to lure Rusesabagina and forcibly capture him as recognized by the then minister of justice, Johnston Busingye and their agent Niyomwungere Constantin   

2)False charges

After getting the Hotel Rwanda Hero, there followed the manufacture of crimes they should prosecute him for and they fall on offences of  terrorism since they falsely attributed to him then general management of the FLN rebellion; they were facilitated in this enterprise as they had arrested and detained Nsabimana Callixte alias Sankara who alleged to be under his direct supervision while during the trial sessions he behaved as an agent of RPF who was helping them to charge Rusesabagina Paul; and this was proved in his intervention helping to refute the objection raised by the Hotel Rwanda Hero about the Belgian citizenity.

3)False evidence

After having invented and imputed those serious charges to their prey, the task remaining was to seek proofs. The Rwanda Investigation Bureau and the national public prosecution got down to the task by bribing witnesses who were supposed to confirm the relationship between him and this rebellion; opening phone numbers to which he would have transferred contributions that are insignificant given the scale of the war that this rebellion would have waged against the country.

In addition, they dictated testimonies to the former rebels of the FDLR who are now inside the country who will claim to have been financed by the accused during their military expeditions but to consider the amounts which they bring back, one realizes that this is far from financing a war; but it looks like disbursing small pennies for catering expenses.

4) Due process infringed

In general, the international covenant on civil and political rights of 16 December 1966 into force from 23 March 1976 provides in its article 14 that All persons shall be equal before the courts and tribunals. In the determination of any criminal charge against him, or of his rights and obligations in a suit at law, everyone shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law. The press and the public may be excluded from all or part of a trial for reasons of morals, public order (ordre public) or national security in a democratic society, or when the interest of the private lives of the parties so requires, or to the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice; but any judgment rendered in a criminal case or in a suit at law shall be made public except where the interest of juvenile persons otherwise requires or the proceedings concern matrimonial disputes or the guardianship of children. Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law. In the determination of any criminal charge against him, everyone shall be entitled to the following minimum guarantees, in full equality: to be informed promptly and in detail in a language which he understands of the nature and cause of the charge against him; to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defense and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing; to be tried without undue delay; to be tried in his presence, and to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing; to be informed, if he does not have legal assistance, of this right; and to have legal assistance assigned to him, in any case where the interests of justice so require, and without payment by him in any such case if he does not have sufficient means to pay for it; to examine, or have examined, the witnesses against him and to obtain the attendance and examination of witnesses on his behalf under the same conditions as witnesses against him; to have the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand or speak the language used in court; not to be compelled to testify against himself or to confess guilt. In the case of juvenile persons, the procedure shall be such as will take account of their age and the desirability of promoting their rehabilitation. Everyone convicted of a crime shall have the right to his conviction and sentence being reviewed by a higher tribunal according to law. When a person has by a final decision been convicted of a criminal offence and when subsequently his conviction has been reversed or he has been pardoned on the ground that a new or newly discovered fact shows conclusively that there has been a miscarriage of justice, the person who has suffered punishment as a result of such conviction shall be compensated according to law, unless it is proved that the non-disclosure of the unknown fact in time is wholly or partly attributable to him. No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.

Article 9 of the African charter of human and peoples’ rights of 1981 reproduces the same provisions mutatis mutandis.

Better still, article 29 of Rwandan constitution, Everyone has the right to due process of law, which includes the right: to be informed of the nature and cause of charges and the right to defence and legal representation; to be presumed innocent until proved guilty by a competent Court; to appear before a competent Court; not to be subjected to prosecution, arrest, detention or punishment on account of any act or omission which did not constitute an offence under national or international law at the time it was committed. Offences and their penalties are determined by law; not to be held liable for an offence he or she did not commit. Criminal liability is personal; 6° not to be punished for an offence with a penalty that is severer than the penalty provided for by the law at the time that offence was committed; etc.

The Hotel Rwanda Hero was deprived of his right to choose his advocates and this was reflected by the rejection of foreign advocates of Rusesabagina Paul by the Rwanda Bar Association. In addition, he was denied the access to crucial elements of his dossier by the authorities of the Rwanda Correction Services. Worse, the petition of sufficient time to prepare his defense was rejected by the court. Understandably, the fact that the court excluded the count of unlawful arrest and detention was already forecasting the fate of the accused. 

5) What next? Eventual judicial remedies? 

Paul Rusesabagina left his trial because he was not excepting justice from the Rwandan court before which all objections he raised were automatically rejected. Visibly, this judgment deserves to be remedied before the court of appeal but in the same Rwandan judicial context whereby political cases are not independently tried; the eventuality of being acquitted is unthinkable and within the diplomatic quarrels the verdict raised between Rwandan authorities and foreign states(US; Belgium) and various human rights organizations(Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; Lantos Foundation; Clooney Foundation for Justice), the judges, however neutral they may be will be influenced by the Rwandan political position facing those criticisms for the superpowers and most renowned institutions of human rights.

Conclusion: absence of justice officiated

The lawful extradition of a suspect to face trial in another country requires following due process in extradition proceedings overseen by an independent tribunal, which among other issues can assess whether a suspect’s rights in custody and at trial will be guaranteed. This process was not followed in the transfer of Rusesabagina to Rwanda but he was just kidnapped as this was confessed by judicial authorities of Rwanda including the then attorney general. Despite this, on February 26, Rwanda’s High Court Chamber for International and Cross-border Crimes ruled that it has jurisdiction to try him and the same causes produced the same effects given that the court put aside all his rights and his objections rejected compelling him to finally boycott its unjust sessions and he is now sentenced to 25 years. The judges of this court must be implicitly aware that as they did not try this case in an expected independence, the hero of hotel Rwanda is really unduly convicted and is innocent of all those cooked charges.

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