KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — The terrorism trial of the man who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda” began on Wednesday with his argument that a Rwandan court cannot try him because he is no longer a citizen and his assertion that he was kidnapped and is being held hostage.
The world has heard little from Paul Rusesabagina since he disappeared during a visit to Dubai in August and appeared days later in Rwanda in handcuffs, accused of supporting the armed wing of his opposition political platform, which has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks.
His family says the 66-year-old Rusesabagina, praised for saving ethnic Tutsis during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, has no chance at a fair trial because of his outspoken criticism of longtime Rwandan President Paul Kagame and human rights abuses. They also fear he might die from poor health behind bars.
The circumstances around Rusesabagina’s arrest, his limited access to an independent legal team and his reported worsening health have drawn international concern for the Belgian citizen and U.S. resident who left Rwanda in 1996.
The judge on Wednesday said the court will consider Rusesabagina's argument that it has no jurisdiction to try a non-citizen and announce its decision when the trial resumes on Feb. 26.
Rwanda’s president shortly after Rusesabagina’s arrest hinted during a national address that he may have been tricked into boarding a private plane to Rwanda, a country where his family said he would never voluntarily visit again.
Rwanda’s government has said Rusesabagina will receive a fair trial. He faces nine charges including the formation of an irregular armed group; membership in a terrorist group; financing terrorism; and murder, abduction and armed robbery as an act of terrorism. If convicted, he could face more than 20 years in prison.
“Let me say for the fifth time that I am Belgian and not Rwandan,” Rusesabagina told the court. “I was kidnapped and brought to Rwanda and I am being held here hostage. Kidnap itself is a crime.” Rusesabagina in the past has denied funding rebel groups.
His lawyer, Gatera Gashabana, told the court that the Rwandan prosecution “has not presented warrants of arrest of Rusesabagina. He was neither extradited nor arrested in Kigali as the prosecution said. He was kidnapped.“
But the judge, Antoine Muhima, said that “If Belgium cannot extradite its citizen to Rwanda, can’t Rwanda try a Belgian who committed crimes in Rwanda?”
And lead prosecutor Bonaventure Ruberwa said, “We don’t accept that he is not a Rwandan. We know him as Rwandan with a dual nationality. He accepts that he was born of Rwandan parents. He has Rwandan nationality by origin. He has never forsaken the Rwandan nationality he had before he became Belgian.”
Rwanda’s penal code says a non-national or national who commits a crime in Rwanda is prosecuted by Rwandan courts, the prosecutor added.
Rusesabagina is credited with saving more than 1,000 people by sheltering them at the hotel he managed during the genocide in which more than 800,000 Tutsi and Hutus who tried to protect them were killed. Rwanda’s government has long asserted that Rusesabagina’s role in the genocide was exaggerated.