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‘I am a hostage,’ says ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero as terrorism trial begins in Kigali

Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” appeared in court in Kigali on Wednesday along with 20 others accused of conspiring to launch attacks on Rwandan territory in 2018 and 2019, resulting in at least nine deaths.

The 66-year-old was first arrested in August 2020 and faces nine charges, including financing terrorism, murder as an act of terrorism, formation of an irregular armed group, and membership of a terrorist group, among others, according to prosecutors.

During the trial — which was heard by Rwanda’s High Court Chamber for International and Cross-Border Crimes — the outspoken critic of Rwandan president Paul Kagame told the court that he wished to be referred to as a Belgian citizen kidnapped by the Rwandan authorities, who have no jurisdiction to try him.

“I am a Belgian citizen. I am here simply as a hostage,” Rusesabagina said, adding that he renounced his Rwandan citizenship in 1996 when he fled Rwanda to Belgium.

“When I arrived in Belgium, I handed over my Rwandan passport and National Identity Card. I immediately ceased to be Rwandan but instead became what you would call an orphan under the care of the United Nations,” Rusesabagina continued, urging the court to order for his repatriation back to Belgium to face trial there.

Wednesday’s trial marked the first joint hearing of Rusesabagina and his co-accused after the prosecution requested last year that the case be combined into a single trial for all those they claim are linked to two militia attacks in 2018 and 2019 on the country’s Nyungwe National parks.

Genocide hero

Rwandan authorities have denied Rusesabagina’s allegations of kidnapping, while prosecutors have maintained that the defendant remains Rwandan by origin and should be tried in Rwanda on grounds that the crimes he is accused of were committed in Rwanda against Rwandans, thus giving their courts jurisdiction over him.

Other suspects in this hearing included Callixte Nsabimana — also known as Sankara — and Herman Nsengimana; according to prosecutors, both are linked to the National Liberation Front (FLN) militia wing of the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change opposition group (MRCD).

The prosecutors told the court that Rusesabagina was the head of the MRDC coalition and in charge of diplomacy for the opposition group.

The case has been adjourned until 26 February, when the court is expected to make a ruling on the jurisdiction objections presented by Rusesabagina and his lawyer.

Rusesabagina gained prominence for saving hundreds of Rwandans during the country’s genocide by sheltering them in the hotel he managed. His story was made into the Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda,” starring Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo.

Rusesabagina and his supporters have long maintained that he became a target of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s government after sustained criticism of the government and the conduct of the Rwandan Patriotic Front in ending the genocide in 1994. Around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in the genocide, which was led by Hutu extremists.

He is the recipient of several human rights awards for his efforts during the genocide, including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and the Human Rights Prize by the Lantos Foundation in 2011, among others.

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