KAMPALA – Rights activists and others are urging Rwandan authorities to free the man who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda,” saying his health is failing after an appeals court upheld his 25-year jail term for terror offenses.
Paul Rusesabagina, who holds Belgian citizenship and U.S. residency, is credited with sheltering a group of ethnic Tutsi during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. He was convicted in September on charges including membership in a terrorist group, murder and abduction.
Rusesabagina is a well-known critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and lived in exile in the U.S.
Some activists who spoke Wednesday during an online event in support of Rusesabagina said the U.S. could do more to free the 67-year-old recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. They also appealed to the compassion of Rwandan authorities.
“I am asking President Kagame that you extend the grace that you've shown to me and my family to Paul and his family now," said Don Cheadle, appealing to Rwanda's leader. “Please lead with mercy.”
Cheadle, who played Rusesabagina in the 2004 Hollywood movie, said the former hotel manager had “more than given his pound of flesh" after many months in custody.
Rusesabagina is credited with saving more than 1,000 people by sheltering them at the hotel he managed during the genocide, in which more than 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu who tried to protect them were killed.
He left Rwanda in 1996.
The criminal case against Rusesabagina attracted international attention because of his high profile, the circumstances surrounding his arrest in 2020, and his limited access to an independent legal team. Throughout his trial Rusesabagina maintained that he was not guilty and asserted that he didn’t expect to get justice.
His conviction came more than a year after he disappeared during a visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. He appeared days later in Rwanda in handcuffs, accused of supporting the armed wing of his opposition political platform, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change.
The armed group claimed some responsibility for attacks in 2018 and 2019 that killed nine people in southern Rwanda. Rusesabagina testified at trial that he helped to form the armed group to help refugees but said he never supported violence.
Rusesabagina's family and supporters insist his arrest was in response to his criticism of Kagame over alleged rights abuses. Kagame’s government has repeatedly denied targeting dissenting voices with arrests and extrajudicial killings.
Terry George, who directed "Hotel Rwanda," said his film became “the center of a disinformation campaign” as Rusesabagina's stature in the Rwandan diaspora grew with his criticism of Rwandan authorities.
“He turned to me and thanked me for making the film,” George said of Kagame, recalling a screening of the film in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. “The film was universally received in Rwanda at the time.”
Rwandan officials have since dismissed Rusesabagina as a “manufactured” hero.
Kagame's Rwanda “is one of the world’s worst perpetrators of transnational repression,” said Nicole Bibbins Sedaca of the Freedom House group. ”We have to hold authoritarian regimes to account when they use tools like transnational repression, when they take political prisoners simply to target and silence their critics."
Kate Gibson, a member of Rusesabagina's legal team, said her client didn't get a just trial. She also charged Wednesday that members of Rusesabagina's legal team in Rwanda "have been subjected to unthinkable indignities over and over again.” She gave no details.
A Rwandan appeals court on April 4 upheld Rusesabagina's 25-year jail sentence, rejecting prosecutors' efforts to have him imprisoned for life.
Rusesabagina's health has worsened, according to his family.
“He is sick. He is ill,” Anaise Kanimba said of her father. “We probably believe he had a stroke and we don't have time. We don't have time, and that’s why we need your help. We need the help of the international community. We need the help of the world.”