by Frans Boogaard*
Paul Rusesabagina, who rescued more than 1200 compatriots in 1994 during the genocide by providing them with protection at his Mille Collines hotel, was sentenced to 25 years in prison on Monday in his native Rwanda. His family in Brussels speaks of ’a sham trial’ and wants to free him through political pressure.
A Rwandan court concluded in a verdict, which was read aloud taking almost an entire day, that Rusesabagina is a co-founder and financier of armed groups that want to overthrow the Rwandan regime ’by all means, including war’. From neighbouring Congo, they are said to have planned and carried out attacks on targets in Rwanda. The court relies on emails, proof of payment and (overheard) telephone conversations with regard to Rusesabagina’s role, the so-called attacks themselves are not documented. Rusesabagina, who lives alternately in the US and Belgium, was kidnapped last August – his flight from Dubai to neighbouring Burundi was diverted to Rwanda – and tortured for days before his arrest was made public. Since then, he has been imprisoned and isolated most of the time.
According to Rusesabagina’s family and NGOs supporting him, no evidence of involvement in any violent group or action was provided during the trial, from February to July this year. Nevertheless, the family was not surprised by the verdict. "That was already certain before he was kidnapped, in the years that he put himself forward as a defender of human rights and he was declared an enemy of the state. The only question was whether the Rwandan regime wanted to show itself to be kinder than it is by dropping one or more charges or not giving a life sentence." But according to the family, 25 years for a sick convict of 67 also amounts to life imprisonment. That it was a sham trial was proved by the Rwandan court even more on the day of the verdict, according to the family, by coming up with a new accusation at the last minute. The accusation was of a gift of €300.000, collected by Rusesabagina in a fundraising campaign, and given to armed rebels fighting the Kagame regime from eastern Congo. After the last day of the trial, Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes also released all the brakes. On Monday evening she noted (on VRT, the Flemish public broadcaster) that Rusesabagina had ’not had a free and fair trial’, ’in particular as far as the rights of the defence are concerned’ . Rusesabagina was not given access to his own file and lawyers. The presumption of innocence was also not respected, according to Wilmes, who added: "These elements de facto call into question the trial and the verdict." She would have liked to discuss this later this week in the margins of the UN General Assembly with her Rwandan colleague Vincent Biruta, but he is apparently an avid VRT viewer. Wilmes’ criticism landed badly and the meeting was swiftly cancelled. This has made it clear once again how much room there is in Rwanda for opinions that are not those of President Kagame.
The support committee for Rusesabagina now has no choice but to increase the political pressure to free Kagame’s nemesis. According to Rusesabagina’s Belgian lawyer Vincent Lurquin, himself recently expelled from the country without being allowed to see his client, this was ’a political process, and there must now also be a political solution’. Rusesabagina’s support committee is already in contact with parliamentarians in the US and Belgium. The European Parliament adopted a resolution in February. The European Commission, according to a spokesman late last week, has opted for quiet diplomacy. So quiet in fact that Commission President von der Leyen did not raise the Rusesabagina case during a recent meeting with Kagame and Council President Michel has never responded to letters from the family.
*Brussels’ correspondent of ‘Algemeen Dagblad’ (Dutch leading daily)