Hotel Rwanda hero looking at increased sentence

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Hotel Rwanda hero Paul Rusesabagina (centre) and his lawyer David Rugaza (right) is seen at the Nyarugenge Court of Justice in Kigali, Rwanda, on October 2, 2020. AFP

A Rwandan court on January 18 ruled that a prosecution appeal to increase a prison sentence against “Hotel Rwanda” hero Paul Rusesabagina must go ahead even though he is boycotting the proceedings.

The fiercely outspoken critic of President Paul Kagame was sentenced last year to 25 years in jail on terrorism charges after a trial that his family and supporters branded a sham.

But state prosecutors appealed, saying the punishment against the former Kigali hotel manager was too lenient and should be increased to life.

They are also appealing the sentences meted out to Rusesabagina’s 20 co-defendants, who were jailed for between three and 20 years.

All were convicted of backing an armed rebel group blamed for a spate of deadly attacks in Rwanda from 2018-2019.

The 67-year-old Rusesabagina – who is credited with saving more than 1,200 lives during the 1994 genocide – refused to appear in court on January 17 for the first appeal hearing.

On January 18, Judge Francois Regis Rukundakuvuga ruled that Rusesabagina “was informed and notified about the appeal hearing in a manner that followed law” and it would proceed despite his absence.

The next hearing was set for January 20.

His family said on January 14 that Rusesabagina would not participate “in a staged appeal of a political prisoner” and urged the international community to pressure Rwanda to free their father.

Rusesabagina became the most famous Rwandan internationally after US actor Don Cheadle dramatised his deeds during the genocide in the 2004 Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda.

He later used his celebrity to denounce rebel leader turned president Kagame as a dictator, and left Rwanda in 1996, living in Belgium and then the US.

Both countries have voiced concern that Rusesabagina had been denied a fair trial, and his family insist their ailing father has been mistreated in prison and denied proper legal services.

He was arrested when a plane he believed was bound for Burundi landed instead in Kigali after what his family has described as a kidnapping.