KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) – Rights activists and others are urging Rwandan authorities to release the man who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda”, saying his health is failing after an appeals court upheld his 25-year prison sentence for terrorist crimes.
Paul Rusesabagina, who has Belgian citizenship and a US residence permit, is credited with protecting a group of ethnic Tutsis during Rwanda’s genocide in 1994. He was convicted in September of, among other things, 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 United States
Some activists who spoke on Wednesday during an online event in support of Rusesabagina said the United States could do more to free the 67-year-old recipient of the president’s freedom medal. They also appealed to the compassion of the Rwandan authorities.
“I urge President Kagame to extend the grace you have shown me and my family to Paul and his family now,” Don Cheadle said, appealing to Rwanda’s leader. “Please lead with mercy.”
Cheadle, who played Rusesabagina in the 2004 Hollywood film, said the former hotel director had “more than given his pound of meat” after many months in custody.
Rusesabagina is credited with rescuing more than 1,000 people by housing them at the hotel he managed during the genocide, in which more than 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus who tried to protect them were killed.
He left Rwanda in 1996.
The criminal case against Rusesabagina attracted international attention due to 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 claimed that he did not expect justice.
His sentence came more than a year after he disappeared during a visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. He appeared in handcuffs in Rwanda days later, accused of supporting the armed wing of his opposition political platform, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change.
The armed group took some responsibility for attacks in 2018 and 2019 that killed nine people in southern Rwanda. Rusesabagina testified during the trial that he helped 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 violations. Kagame’s government has repeatedly denied having targeted conflicting 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 the 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 capital of Rwanda. “The film was universally received in Rwanda at the time.”
Rwandan officials have since dismissed Rusesabagina as a “manufactured” hero.
Kagames Rwanda “is one of the world’s worst perpetrators of transnational oppression,” said Nicole Bibbins Sedaca of the Freedom House group. “We need to hold authoritarian regimes accountable when they use tools like transnational repression, when they take political prisoners just to target their critics and silence them.”
Kate Gibson, a member of Rusesabagina’s legal team, said her client did not get a fair trial. She also accused on Wednesday that members of Rusesabagina’s legal team in Rwanda “have been subjected to unimaginable insults over and over again.” She gave no details.
A Rwandan appellate court upheld Rusesabagina’s 25-year prison sentence on April 4, dismissing the prosecutor’s efforts to get him jailed for life.
Rusesabagina’s health has deteriorated according to his family.
“He’s sick. He’s sick,” Anaise Kanimba said of her father. “We probably think he had a stroke and we do not have time. We do not have time and therefore we need your help. We need help from the international community. We need the help of the world. “