(Nairobi) – The conviction of the Rwandan critic and political opponent Paul Rusesabagina comes after a flawed trial that is emblematic of the government’s overreach and manipulation of the justice system, Human Rights Watch said today.
On September 20, 2021, the High Court’s Special Chamber for International Crimes and Cross-border Crimes sentenced Rusesabagina to 25 years in prison, including for being a member of a terrorist group and for committing terrorist acts. Twenty others were also convicted of terrorism-related offenses alongside Rusesabagina.
“The Rwandan authorities have the right to prosecute genuine security offenses, but they have undermined their case every step of the way, starting with the manner in which they unlawfully detained Paul Rusesabagina, through multiple violations of the right to a fair trial,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Unsurprisingly, we saw once again that the Rwanda courts are overpowered by political influence.”
While delivering the verdict, judges reviewed evidence of Rusesabagina and Callixte Nsabimana’s – alias Sankara – leadership role in an opposition group and its armed wing, which has claimed responsibility for several deadly attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019. Judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi said: “They committed terror acts which they later bragged about in different announcements and videos.” The court rejected allegations of kidnapping or coercion with regards to the enforced disappearance, between August 27 and 31, 2020, and illegal transfer of Rusesabagina to Rwanda. Judges did not address the allegations of ill-treatment and fair trial rights violations raised by Rusesabagina and his lawyers throughout the trial.
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 Change (Mouvement rwandais pour le changement démocratique, MRCD), a coalition of opposition groups, which has an armed wing known as the National Liberation Forces (Forces de libération nationale, FLN).
The FLN has claimed responsibility for several deadly attacks in Rwanda’s Southern Province since 2018. Rusesabagina, Nsabimana, the FLN’s former spokesperson, and the other co-accused were convicted on charges related to these attacks. Prosecutors requested a life sentence against Rusesabagina, and sought to link him to the deaths of at least nine people. Since it began on February 17, Human Rights Watch has monitored the trial independently, interviewed Rusesabagina’s lawyers and family members, and reviewed court documents and motions submitted by his lawyers.
In a recorded video call between then-Justice Minister Johnston Busingye and two consultants from the British Public Relations firm Chelgate, broadcast by Al Jazeera on February 26, Busingye admitted that Rwandan prison authorities had intercepted privileged communications between Rusesabagina and his lawyers, in violation of his due process rights. On March 1, the court conducted a visit to Nyarugenge prison and concluded that Rusesabagina did not have the necessary equipment to prepare for his trial, including a computer to allow him to go through the trial documents, and that his confidential trial documents should not be seized. However, Rusesabagina’s lawyers and family members told Human Rights Watch the interference with his legal papers continued.
Rwandan and international legal standards protect all communications and consultations between lawyers and their clients within their professional relationship as confidential. The Rwandan authorities’ actions only undermine further any integrity in the outcome of the trial and compromise the prospect of credible justice for victims of the attacks Rusesabagina is accused of supporting, Human Rights Watch said.
After a March 5 request to adjourn the trial to give Rusesabagina time to prepare was rejected, Rusesabagina informed the court that he would no longer participate in his trial because of fair trial rights violations. Since then, Rusesabagina and his lawyers have not attended the trial sessions and have not cross-examined some of the key prosecution witnesses.
In an affidavit, one of Rusesabagina’s lawyers, Jean-Félix Rudakemwa, said that on April 23, 2021, prison authorities informed him that all documents and devices entering the prison would be searched, including privileged court documents. Rusesabagina’s daughter, Anaïse Kanimba, told the media that she and her family believed their communications were being monitored after the lawyer’s documents were confiscated during his next visit on April 29. She said they had communicated privately about an affidavit they wanted Rusesabagina to sign. The search appeared to be focused on finding the affidavit recounting Rusesabagina’s allegations of ill-treatment in detention, including during the time he was forcibly disappeared.
In July, Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories reported that Rwandan authorities used NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to potentially target more than 3,500 activists, journalists, and politicians. According to forensic analysis of her phone, they found that the spyware was also used to infect the phone of Carine Kanimba, Rusesabagina’s daughter.
From the moment of his arrest to the delivery of the verdict, this trial has been riddled with irregularities and evidence of political interference, Human Rights Watch said.
Rusesabagina’s arrest and detention started as an enforced disappearance in August 2020. A year later, the authorities have failed to provide a consistent or full account of how he was apprehended and came to be in their custody. On March 10, 2021, the court ruled that Rusesabagina’s transfer was legal, and that he was not kidnapped, although authorities say he was “tricked” into boarding a plane to Rwanda. Rwandan authorities have not disclosed whose custody Rusesabagina was in when he disappeared in Dubai on August 27, 2020, until his reappearance in Kigali on August 31. However, in the Al Jazeera clip, Busingye admitted the government’s role in the illegal transfer.
Busingye also admitted that the Rwandan government paid for the flight that brought Rusesabagina from Dubai to Kigali on August 27, 2020, claiming it was legal. Rusesabagina has said that he was not aware of where he was and was kept blindfolded with his hands and feet bound, and his lawyer alleges that during this time, he was subjected to ill-treatment and told to confess to crimes he has been charged with.
When authorities deprive someone of their liberty and refuse to acknowledge the detention, or conceal the person’s whereabouts, they are committing an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law and prohibited under all circumstances. Those involved in and responsible for such acts should be held criminally responsible, Human Rights Watch said.
During the trial, the prosecutors referred to interrogations conducted by Rwanda Investigation Bureau agents without a lawyer present, on August 31, 2020. In the first days after his arrest, and during the key phase of investigations, Rusesabagina was not given access to Gatera Gashabana, a lawyer chosen by his family. Almost one week after Rusesabagina was presented to the media in Kigali, on 5 September 2020, David Rugaza announced at a press conference that Rusesabagina had chosen him as his legal counsel. Rwandan authorities said they allowed Rusesabagina to choose from a list of lawyers of the Rwandan Bar Association. Gashabana was only able to join the defense team in November 2020, after Rusesabagina’s two state-appointed lawyers were recalled by the Rwandan Bar Association. Rusesabagina’s international team of lawyers have not been allowed to represent him in court.
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. Despite this, on February 26, Rwanda’s High Court Chamber for International and Cross-border Crimes ruled that it has jurisdiction to try him.
Rusesabagina, a US green card holder and Belgian citizen, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005 and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize in 2011. Over the years, Rusesabagina has become a prominent critic of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and accused Kagame of arming secret militias. In December 2018, Rusesabagina denounced Kagame’s government in a video on YouTube and called for the “use [of] any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda as all political means have been tried and failed.” In the video, he pledges “unreserved support” to the FLN, the armed wing of the MRCD. Since 2018, the FLN has claimed responsibility for several attacks around Nyungwe forest, Southern Province, near the border with Burundi.
“To ensure a fair trial, it’s important for judges and judicial officials to fully respect and follow all human rights standards,” Mudge said. “However, the serious violations of these standards during Paul Rusesabagina’s trial have further compromised the Rwandan judiciary’s credibility in handling cases deemed political.”