Paul Rusesabagina, who was depicted in the film “Hotel Rwanda” as a hero for saving more than 1,200 people during genocide in Rwanda in 1994, has been relying on two strong grounds to thwart his ongoing prosecution in Kigali courts.
As the manager of a five-star hotel where 1,268 people sheltered from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina was known for his cool head — a quality that kept the killers at bay, helped ensure that all his guests survived, and led to an Oscar-nominated movie, “Hotel Rwanda,” that brought his story to a global audience.
Unfortunately, Rusesabagina is defending himself against very serious charges that could see him locked away much of his remaining life after prosecution submitting evidence that shreds to pieces the 66-year old celebrity’s defense and strengthens the state’s case.
Rusesabagina had hoped to convince the world that President Paul Kagame’s security kidnapped him from Dubai on his way to Burundi and delivered him to Rwandan authorities as a prisoner on charges of terrorism and murder among others.
Rusesabagina is on trial with 20 other alleged members of a rebel group called the National Liberation Forces (FLN), which has reportedly carried out a number deadly attacks in Rwanda in recent years.
Charges against him include the accusation that he is “the founder, leader, sponsor and member of violent, armed, extremist terror outfits … operating out of various places in the region and abroad”.
In a September pre-trial hearing, Rusesabagina told the court he had contributed €20,000 (£17,400) to the FLN, the military wing of the Movement for Democratic Change, a political party that he co-chaired from exile. But he denied any wrongdoing. Prosecutors allege that he also recruited dozens of fighters.
On his way to Burundi, the former hotelier boarded a private jet in Dubai believing he was being flown to Bujumbura to talk to church groups. But he instead landed in Kigali in handcuffs.
However, it has emerged that Rwandan Bishop Constantin Niyomwungere willingly collaborated with Rwandan security agents to sell-out Rusesabagina.
In his testimony to the High Court Chamber of International and Cross Border Crimes of Nyanza sitting at the Supreme Court in Kigali, the pastor said he was compelled to help the state after being presented with evidence of Rusesabagina’s atrocious activities.
“I prayed and I fasted about this mission. I was compelled by the Holy Spirit. I could not be comfortable seeing that I was talking to someone who planned attacks in which people were killed and children orphaned. I was guilty in my heart and I had to do something,” said Bishop Niyomwungere, who claims to be a close friend of Rusesabagina.
The cleric, who is a key witness in the trial, told court that Rusesabagina allegedly expressed fears that traveling with commercial flights would expose the latter to risks since Rwanda had issued arrest warrants against his name, which is why they agreed to secure a private jet to ferry him to Bujumbura.
“He said he would not do any stopover in any European country because there are arrest warrants issued against him especially in Belgium. He even refused Germany and did not want to go through Kenya where I was. He proposed a stopover at Dubai rather,” said Niyomwungere.
It was then agreed that Rusesabagina would pay for a flight from US to Dubai from where a private jet would fly him to Bujumbura. Niyomwungere had lied that the Burundi government had covered all the costs of the private jet for that particular trip.
Niyomwungere preceded Rusesabagina in Dubai and booked a hotel room at Hotel Ibis, but Rusesabagina suspected that “there are many Africans in Dubai and Rwandans may notice my arrival and arrest him.”
Bishop Niyomwungere with the help an agent attached to Rwanda Investigation Bureau only known as Michel secured the private jet. “Everyone on the plane knew it was going to Kigali, except Mr. Rusesabagina,” he told court.
On the plane, Bishop Niyomwungere said that they were only two passengers -himself and Rusesabagina, an air-hostess and pilots.
“Rusesabagina likes discussing and having light moments. Whenever an occasion of getting on-flight information was presented, I would involve him in deep chats and then the occasion would pass without him noticing,” Niyomwungere said.
The Bishop claims Rusesabagina slept while flying only to wake up after landing at Kigali International airport.
They disembarked and Rusesabagina was arrested, the Bishop said.
Bishop Niyomwungere’s testimony contradicts the widely held view that Rusesabagina was kidnapped.
According to family sources, Rusesabagina left his home in San Antonio, Texas, and arrived in Dubai on an Emirates flight from Chicago on the evening of August 27. He then checked into the Ibis Hotel in Dubai, according to a document from the United Arab Emirates mission in Geneva, and five hours later boarded a private jet that he believed was headed to Burundi, where he planned to speak to churches at the invitation of a local pastor.
The next day, the plane, operated by the Greece-based charter firm GainJet, landed in Kigali, where he was arrested, bound and interrogated.
After his arrest, President Paul Kagame — whose government had been trying to apprehend the 66-year-old Mr. Rusesabagina for years — dubbed the operation “flawless” and denied that it was not a kidnapping.
But at no one point did Kigali authorities say they hired the plane that transported Rusesabagina. In fact, in December, Mr. Rusesabagina and his family sued GainJet over its role in the episode.
The truth only came to light after Al Jazeera exclusively obtained a video showing the Rwandan Minister of Justice and Attorney General Johnston Busingye telling his government’s public relations experts that his government hired the plane that transported Rusesabagina against his will.
The movie star has also challenged Rwandan courts that they don’t have jurisdiction to try him — a Belgian citizen and permanent resident of the United States.
Rusesabagina’s lawyers say that as a Belgian national he should not be tried in a Rwandan court but sent to Belgium.
But court has ruled that it has jurisdiction to try even non-Rwandans as long as they committed the suspected crimes on Rwandan territory.
Prosecution has shredded Rusesabagina’s assertions arguing that the latter is in fact a Rwandan citizen and therefore should be tried by Rwandan courts.
Prosecution claims that Rusesabagina had never renounced his Rwandan citizenship, adding that the Belgian government had frequently cooperated with Rwanda in investigating his past activities.
And consequently, prosecution has shown evidence indicating that Paul Rusesabagina acquired a Rwandan passport in 2004, which he applied for after he reported the loss of his previous one. The new passport, number PC 009914, was set to expire on 29 July 2009.
Immigration records submitted to court show that Rusesabagina personally applied for the new passport after losing passport no. A003469, and paid Rwf50,000 to the Rwanda Revenue Authority.
The application was supported by a document from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs addressed to the Directorate of Immigration, requesting that Rusesabagina be facilitated to acquire the new passport.
The letter, signed by the acting Secretary General at the time, indicates that Rusesabagina “is in Kigali and he wishes to return to his place of residence with the new passport”.
Rusesabagina had told the court that he returned to Rwanda twice, in 2003 and 2004, traveling on a Belgian passport with Rwandan visas issued by the Rwandan embassy in Brussels. He however did not reveal that he had actively pursued a replacement for his lost Rwandan passport.