The pre-trial hearing of Hotel Rwanda ‘hero’ Paul Rusesabagina kicked off on Monday at Kicukiro Primary Court, with his lawyers arguing that the court had no jurisdiction to try the 66-year old who they said is a Belgian citizen with permanent residence in the United States.
Rusesabagina arrived at the Kicukiro court aboard a Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) detainees van at 9:30am, clad in a brown suit and cream shirt, amid tight security. Attendees were required to take a COVID-19 test.
In court, Rusesabagina’s biodata was read out, which he acknowledged, before his lawyers David Rugaza and Emeline Nyembo, immediately presented impediments, including raising concerns on the competence of the court to try a non-Rwanda resident.
Rusesabagina’s lawyers argued that the court has no jurisdiction to try their client, who is a citizen of Belgium, with residence in the U.S and the alleged crimes were not committed on Rwandan soil.
According to a charge sheet, Rusesabagina faces 13 charges, including the creation or entry of an illegal armed group, terrorism, engaging in terrorism for political gain, issuance of instructions in the act of terrorism, membership in a terrorist organization, conspiracy and incitement of terrorism, complicity in the crimes of murder, arson, theft and many more.
Prosecutors detailed Rusesabagina’s alleged crimes, starting with the attacks of the National Liberation Front (NLF) between June 2018 and December the same year as well as financing of armed groups such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
Prosecutors further argued that Paul Rusesabagina during questioning admitted that he is a Rwandan citizen by birth and also admitted that he was the leader of NLF/MRCD, with the ‘R’ in the acronym standing for ‘Rwanda’. He did the actions as a Rwandan, not a Belgian.
RIB announced Rusesabagina’s arrest on August 31 on allegations of committing a series of crimes as the leader of Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), whose armed wing, NLF was behind attacks in South Western Rwanda between June 2018 and April 2019.
On him being Rwandan, Prosecutors also argued that they obtained information that he owns land with a house in a Kigali suburb of Nyarutarama, pointing out that there is proof to suggest that he is more of a Rwandan than he is Belgian or American. He also admitted to financing the aforementioned groups.
Rusesabagina’s Lawyer Rugaza argued that their clients’ only crime was to exercise his freedom of expression on issues as an individual but Prosecutors dismissed the argument, saying that freedom of expression doesn’t entail forming armed groups which attacked and killed Rwandans.
They further argued that he should be tried in Gasabo if that is where he owns a house, instead of Kicukiro but Prosecutors argued that the Kicukiro court was competent since he was arrested at Kigali International Airport which is within Kicukiro district.
Rusesabagina’s Lawyer Nyembo asked the court to rein in Prosecutors whose tone seemed to suggest that their client is guilty yet the case is yet to go into substance & their client enjoys the right to presumption of innocence.
On that, the, Prosecutors Jean Cabin Habimana and Oscar Butera said that the impediments presented by the lawyers required them to go into details and tell court some of the details they will be presenting when the trial goes into substance but they are in no way trying to portray Rusesabagina as guilty before trial.
“Paul Rusesabagina is still a suspect presumed to be innocent, we agree with the lawyers on that. If there was a misunderstanding in the tone, we would like to categorically say that he is a suspect and the crimes are still alleged,” Butera told the court.
Prosecutors say Rusesabagina can’t be separated from NLF/MRCD actions as the lawyers argued. As the leader of the groups, he took responsibility for the actions of the groups and during questioning, he admitted to the actions of the groups and even said that he regretted them, hence he cannot be separated from their actions.
Prosecutors also argued that Rwandan courts have the jurisdiction to try anybody, regardless of their nationality, as long as they are suspected of committing crimes on Rwandan soil or against Rwandans.
Rusesabagina’s lawyers argued the money Prosecutors say he gave the alleged groups were small charitable amounts ranging between $900 and $300 which cannot be considered substantial to finance an armed struggle against a government but Prosecutors disagreed, saying that amounts in the range of 20,000 Euros cannot be seen as charitable.
The pre-trial hearing has been adjourned for Judges to retreat till 1pm to discuss the legal obstacles.