Paul Rusesabagina, who mysteriously disappeared from Dubai last month and then resurfaced as a prisoner in Rwanda, says he believed he was being flown to Burundi to talk to church groups.
The former hotelier lauded as a hero during the 1994 Rwanda genocide says he was duped by the Rwandan authorities into returning to his home country last month to face charges of terrorism and murder, boarding a plane he thought was going to Burundi instead.
Paul Rusesabagina, whose story inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” made the assertion in an interview to The New York Times on Tuesday — as government officials listened in — at the Kigali Metropolitan Police headquarters, where he has been held for more than two weeks.
In the interview, which was authorized by the government, Mr. Rusesabagina offered an account of how he came to vanish from an airport in Dubai — and then show up in handcuffs days later in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. But his story also raised more questions about the circumstances of his disappearance, which created a sensation, in part because of his movie fame.
Mr. Rusesabagina, who has lived for years in Belgium and the United States, said he thought the private plane he was boarding in Dubai was bound for Bujumbura, Burundi, where he planned to speak to churches at the invitation of a local pastor.
A prominent government critic who had been living in exile in Texas, Mr. Rusesabagina, 66, said that during his first few days of custody in the hands of Rwandan intelligence operatives, he was kept tied up and did not know where he was. His treatment has improved since then, he said.
Mr. Rusesabagina said he was giving the interview voluntarily, but he appeared to be speaking under duress.
Instead, he said, when he stepped outside the aircraft after landing in the predawn hours of Aug. 29, he was surrounded by Rwandan soldiers and realized he was not in Burundi but in neighboring Rwanda, where he had last been 16 years ago. He said it was a surprise.
Asked how he reacted, Mr. Rusesabagina said, “Imagine how you would feel if you find yourself where you are not supposed to be.”
His account came barely a week after President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, breaking his silence about the arrest, said he had been lured into coming back “on the basis of what he believed and what he wanted to do.”
Mr. Rusesabagina’s family insists that he would never have voluntarily returned to Rwanda. They have accused the Kagame government of kidnapping him from Dubai, and demanded to know more about the circumstances of his transfer.
The Rwandan government had been trying for at least a decade to apprehend Rusesabagina, who was catapulted to fame by the 2004 movie, in which he was played by the actor Don Cheadle.
Kigali administration calls him a dangerous subversive who has supported anti-government groups that have launched attacks on Rwanda.
A court in Kigali on Monday brought 13 charges against him, including terrorism, complicity in kidnap and murder and forming a rebel group.
During the pre-trial hearing Rusesabigina apologized for causing harm to Rwandans. He said that throughout his interactions with investigators and prosecution, he has been clear that if there are some bad actions that were committed by the groups he supported, leading to loss of lives, he regrets them.
“I regret these actions and I am seeking forgiveness from all Rwandans as well as the victims and all those who were affected by these actions,” he told court. He sought forgiveness, pointing out that his intention was not to engage in activities that would lead to the death of innocent Rwandans.
Court heard that 82 children were forcefully recruited into National Liberation Front (NLF), the armed wing of Rusesabagina’s Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) coalition.
Prosecutors also said that they had autopsy reports of three people who were killed in the attacks between June and December 2018, in Nyabimata Sector, Nyaruguru district and those of 6 people killed in NLF attacks in Cyitabi Sector, Nyamagabe district, all of which will be presented in court.
The coalition launched terror attacks on the southwestern part of Rwanda, between June 2018 and April 2019, killing at least 9 people, injuring many, and ransacking homes and businesses. Prosecutors said they have letters detailing Rusesabagina’s activities, including some given to Rwanda by Belgian authorities, as well as chats involving Rusesabagina and others who were plotting to overthrow the Government of Rwanda, as well as money transfer evidence.
Rusesabagina is accused of financing armed groups to fight the Government of Rwanda, as the head of MRCD, and its armed wing NLF.
Prosecutors said they had letters detailing Rusesabagina’s activities, including some given to Rwanda by Belgian authorities, as well as chats involving Rusesabagina and others who were plotting to overthrow the Government of Rwanda, as well as money transfer evidence.
They also mentioned of money transfer details to support armed groups, including money sent by Mukangamije Tatiana, Rusesabagina’s wife, amounting to $970, in 2019, to Nsabimana Callixte, the NLF Spokesperson, who was in Comoros at the time, which was part of the support.
Prosecutors said Belgian Police shared many documents with Rwanda, detailing different fundraising and money transfer activities led by Paul Rusesabagina and his people, involving hundreds of thousands of euros and dollars, which were aimed at sustaining NLF operations.
Rusesabagina said that when the film Hotel Rwanda came out, many Rwandan refugees looked at him as a millionaire and often reached out to him for financial support and for those he supported, he did so out of kindness, not because he was financing their armed activities.
Although the prosecutors detailed strong evidence pinning Rusesabagina on the alleged crimes, the Hotel Rwanda celebrity did not plead guilty but promised that he would explain himself on each of the charges when the trial goes into substance.
Subsequently, on Thursday September 17, 2020 he was denied bail and detained for at least another 30 days.
The Kicukiro Primary Court ruled on Thursday September 17, 2020 that there are strong reasons to believe that Rusesabigina committed the alleged crimes and releasing him would jeopardize investigations.
Mr. Rusesabagina said in the interview that he is innocent of the charges against him.
Listening in were his two lawyers — whom the government says he selected from a list they gave him — and officials with the Rwanda Investigation Bureau and the police, dressed in civilian clothes. Mr. Rusesabagina’s family said in interviews that they hired a different set of lawyers in Rwanda who have not been allowed to see him.
But he dismissed his family’s concerns about his representation, saying, “I chose my lawyers and I am happy with them. But my family is not informed.”
Mr. Rusesabagina said that he had high blood pressure and that the Rwandan authorities had sent doctors to see him.
“A lot of people come,” he said. “They talk to me. They even clean my room sometimes. They give me food. They are very kind. Everything has been smooth. So far, so good.”
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