Hotel Rwanda film hero returned to country of own accord, Kagame says

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Paul Rusesabagina was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 by US President George W Bush in 2005 for sheltering people at the hotel he managed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. AFP

Rwandan President Paul Kagame said over the weekend that the polarising hero of the Hotel Rwanda film had returned home of his own accord, where he was arrested, denying his family’s claims he was kidnapped abroad.

Paul Rusesabagina, who became the most famous Rwandan in the world after the Hollywood blockbuster, had been living in exile until he surfaced in Kigali last week under arrest and accused of financing rebels.

His family argued he had been kidnapped and forced to return to the country where his image is more complex than in the famed movie, where he is credited with saving the lives of more than 1,200 people as they sheltered in the hotel he ran during the country’s 1994 genocide.

In a speech to the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency, Kagame said Rusesabagina had himself returned to Rwanda, where he now stands accused of murder, arson, kidnapping and terrorism.

“Let me eliminate the word kidnap because that was not the case. Rusesabagina will attest to that himself. There was no kidnap, there was no any wrongdoing in the process of his getting here,” said Kagame.

“He got here on the basis of what he believed he wanted to do and he found himself here.”

His niece and adopted daughter, Carine Kanimba, told AFP Rusesabagina was in Dubai for meetings before suddenly being paraded handcuffed in Kigali.

“I don’t know how he got to Rwanda . . . however he would never have done that by his own free will, because he knows that in Rwanda they want him dead,” she said.

Global platform

Rusesabagina, a moderate Hutu, became disillusioned with the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) after its troops flushed out the genocidal regime and ended the slaughter that left some 800,000 Rwandans – mostly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus – dead. 

He accused Kagame and his ruling RPF of authoritarianism and anti-Hutu sentiment as the new regime violently consolidated its power in the aftermath of the genocide. 

He left Rwanda in 1996 along with other moderates who believed the space for political opposition was fast shrinking.

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Rwandan President Paul Kagame says Rusesabagina returned to Rwanda willingly. AFP

But the release of the Oscar-nominated film Hotel Rwanda in 2004 gave him a new global platform to thunder against Kigali, where efforts rose to tarnish his image as a hero.

Survivors groups accused him of profiting from their misery and embellishing his heroics.

Rusesabagina’s rhetoric hardened over the years. He started the opposition group Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), which is said to have an armed wing called the National Liberation Front (FLN).

In multiple speeches, he has expressed support for the FLN – which has carried out armed attacks and is described as a terrorist organisation by Rwanda – but the extent of his involvement in its actions is unclear.

‘Fake lawyer’

Kagame again repeated that people at home would tell a “different story” about Rusesabagina’s role.

“Whether he has people using him in Europe or America, whatever they help him or call him a hero and star, there is no problem with that. But things to do with killing Rwandans and taking away their peace . . . he has to answer that like it or not.”

Kagame vowed Rusesabagina would be treated fairly, even as his family raised concerns about his legal defence.

Rwandan lawyer David Rugaza appeared on national television on Sunday claiming he was selected by Rusesabagina as his attorney from a list of lawyers he was handed.

“I met my client and he is in good health and ready to go for trial,” he said.

However family representative Kitty Kurth told AFP that his “real lawyers have been denied access to him on several occasions”.

Kanimba told AFP that Rugaza “is a fake lawyer chosen by Kagame’s people”.