NAIROBI, Kenya — A court in Rwanda on Monday rejected an attempt by prosecutors to extend to life a 25-year sentence for Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier turned dissident whose story was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda.” . †
Mr Rusesabagina was convicted in September on charges of murder, kidnapping and membership of a terrorist group in a trial that has been widely condemned by human rights groups.
He had refused to participate in the appeals trial, deeming it fraudulent, after prosecutors said the sentences he and 20 others had received were too lenient. But in the end, the court ruled against the charges, finding that the current sentence was “consistent with the weight of his crimes” as a first-time offender.
Kate Gibson, the legal counsel to Mr. Rusesabagina, said the decision was some consolation. “What we’re seeing is just the end of a long mock trial, so the number itself doesn’t really matter,” she said.
Yolande Makolo, the spokeswoman for the Rwandan government, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The appeal ruling is unlikely to have any practical effect as Mr Rusesabagina is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison – he is 67 years old, has survived cancer and has cardiovascular problems. His family has said that his health in prison has deteriorated and that he does not have access to good health care.
“Whether he gets a life sentence or 25 years is so far from our focus,” said Ms. Gibson, “We’re thinking: will he be alive tomorrow, will he still be alive at the end of the week?”
Human rights groups and Rusesabagina’s family said authorities had brought the case to punish him for standing up to the government of President Paul Kagame, which has suppressed dissent in Rwanda since taking office, even as he helped it recover from the 1994 genocide.
Mr. Rusesabagina and his lawyers also said his right to confidential communications and his ability to prepare his defense while in prison were repeatedly violated. In a video accidentally sent to Al Jazeera English last February, the then Attorney General and Attorney General Johnston Busingye admitted to intercepting privileged material in the Rusesabagina case.
Mr. Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and permanent resident of the US, was commended for his role in saving 1,268 people during the 1994 genocide. That story eventually became the basis for the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda” and brought Mr. Rusesabagina widespread acclaim and numerous humanitarian and civil rights awards, including a 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.
Mr. Rusesabagina was living in exile in San Antonio after moving his family there from Belgium over concerns for his family’s safety after their home was broken into several times following his emergence as Mr Kagame’s most talked-about critic.
In August 2020, he was lured by Rwandan agents to leave his home and travel to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates before boarding a private jet that eventually took him to the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
Mr Rusesabagina has said he was blindfolded and arrested immediately after landing in Rwanda and held in solitary confinement and tortured during his early days in detention.
The subsequent trial and detention of Mr. Rusesabagina was condemned by several human rights groups, the European Parliament and members of the US Congress.
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch said it had monitored the trials in Rwanda in 2020 and 2021, in which the “judicial authorities pursued politically motivated prosecutions and perpetuated a culture of intolerance to dissent.”
That was followed by a report from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, published last month, which concluded that the Rwandan government had kidnapped and arbitrarily detained Mr Rusesabagina, and called for his immediate and unconditional release.
On Monday, before the verdict was announced, the Clooney Foundation for Justice, which has been monitoring the court proceedings, also released its final report on the case against Mr. Rusesabagina, saying it was “seriously flawed” and the international and regional violated due process standards. †
Jean-Pierre Afadhali and Emma Bubola reporting contributed.