The terror trial of Hotel Rwanda protagonist Paul Rusesabagina, Callixte Nsabimana, Herman Nsengimana and 18 others all members of the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD and its armed wing National Liberation Front (FLN), which the former is the leader, opened on Wednesday, February 18.
The substantive trial of Rusesabagina and his co-accused is being heard by the High Chamber High Court Chamber for International and Cross-Border Crimes, which is using the Supreme Court premises in Kimihurura, rather than its usual location in Nyanza district, due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The first hearing was characterised by a number of developments and revelations that are likely to determine how the case will shape up over the next months, if not a couple of years, as Rusesabagina and members of his political and armed groups defend themselves against a myriad of charges awaiting them.
1. Technology takes centre stage: Due to the New Coronavirus outbreak, which in the first place prompted the trial to be moved from Nyanza to Kigali, the hearing commenced in a hybrid way, with some people, including the 21 suspects, defence teams, journalists and diplomats, attending physically in the courtroom.
Social distancing was ensured while all attendees had to be tested for COVID-19. The rest of the world followed via a live link on Youtube while local TV station TV1 also aired the proceedings live.
Over 4, 200 were watching via Youtube at any given time throughout the six hours or so of the hearing before it was adjourned to February 26, to give court time to assess the objections presented by Rusesabagina and his team.
There were few tech glitches that lasted minutes as court staff worked constantly to ensure that all went well. The breaks given by the Judge to restore a few technical things, affirmed that we are in the new normal where technology can be relied on to get things done, thanks to the pandemic.
2. Social Media Explosion: Thanks to the live link, thousands of people, especially Rwandans who were more interested in the case, were able to follow the proceedings live from wherever they were, whether in Rwanda or abroad.
Thousands of comments on social media poured in as the trial proceeded, with many particularly commenting on the issue of Rusesabagina’s nationality, which took centre stage on the first day.
What many found more baffling was the fact that Rusesabagina told the court that he was not Rwandan by nationality, in fluent Kinyarwanda, while also confirming that the profile read out to him was his, including the names of his parents, except his citizenship.
Short videos, memes, jokes and more were shared on Twitter and Facebook while a debate ensued on the outside on the issue of nationality, even as it was being deliberated on in court. This is something that has never been seen or heard before.
3. Citizen or Not: From the onset, Rusesabagina dwelled on the argument that he is not a Rwandan citizen and that he shouldn’t be appearing in the High Court because his rights were violated when he was arrested. He said he renounced his Rwandan citizenship in 2000 and became a United Nations ‘orphan’.
Rusesabagina maintained that the two times he travelled to Rwanda, in 2003 and 2004, he travelled on a Belgian Passport, as a Belgian citizen. Despite claiming that he surrendered his national ID and Passport before acquiring a Belgian passport, Prosecution said he never went through a formal process to relinquish his Rwandan citizenship.
Prosecution said they filed charges against him as Rwandan with Belgian citizenship. Court was also told that Rwanda and Belgium accept dual citizenship. They also dwelled on the fact that whether Rwandan or foreigner, committing crimes on Rwandan soil is a sure way to be prosecuted.
4. Contradictions: Prosecution further said that Rusesabagina and his defence are contradicting themselves by arguing that he is not Rwandan yet in his case filed in the East African Court of Justice he did so as a Rwandan and East African citizen.
It is an argument that Rusesabagina and his lawyer Gatera Gashabana struggled to explain but the Judge Antoine Muhima saved them trouble by saying that the nationality issue will be revisited after the objections of the competence of the court is decided.
5. Time wasting: Prosecution said that the objections being raised by Rusesabagina and his defence are aimed at wasting time and causing delays.
Bonaventure Ruberwa, one of the Prosecutors told the court that the Prosecution would prefer that the objections are addressed all at once to allow the case to progress towards deliberations on charges and evidence.
Their position was reiterated by one of the co-accused, Nsabimana, who took the floor to say that he was dismayed by the delaying tactics Rusesabagina and his defence were deploying.
6. Only one woman in the case: Angelina Mukandutiye, the only female in the case, has been a centre of focus since her arrest in December 2019. Mukandutiye, a former Inspector of Education in Nyarugenge Commune before the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Mukandutiye was among a group of members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who were repatriated to Rwanda by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), following a series of operations targeting FDLR positions.
The fighters and their families were handed over to Rwanda for resettlement. Mukantuditiye was among the women and children who were sheltered in Nyarushishi Reintegration Camp in Rusizi district. She was successfully identified as one of the most notorious women who killed in the genocide.
Mukandutiye, who was among the 1,471 returnees, had been sentenced in absentia to life in prison by a Gacaca court. Genocide survivors identified her after she gave an interview to the national broadcaster upon arrival.
Gun-toting Mukandutiye was well known for coordinating attacks in the city during the genocide against the Tutsi, actively mobilising militias and unleashing them on Tutsis who were seeking refugee in St. Famille and St. Paul churches in the city centre.
It later emerged that as the FLDR disintegrated into different factions, Mukandutiye, together with ‘Gen’. Wilson Irategeka chose to join groups affiliated to former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu and Rusesabagina, which is how she ended up in the group of 21.
7. Civil Action Suit: Lawyers representing at least 84 individuals who filed a civil action seeking compensation due to the damages suffered during the Nyabimata attacks, between 2018 and 2019 added a new twist to the case.
The affected civil parties want the court to compel Rusesabagina and co. to compensate them for the losses suffered during the attacks launched by FLN in the south western districts of Nyamagabe, Nyaruguru, Rusizi and Nyamasheke.
They say that during the attacks in which 9 people were killed and scores injured, they lost properties and goods worth millions and should be compensated by those who perpetrated the attacks.
8. Diplomats in attendance: The first hearing was attended by diplomats and political analysts representing different embassies. Some of the Kigali-based diplomats in attendance included the U.S Ambassador to Rwanda, Peter Vrooman, diplomats from Belgium, UK, Netherlands and the European Union (EU) delegations as well as Lilian Langford, representing the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights.
9. Nsabimana vs Rusesabagina: It was a case of ‘slave vs master’ as Nsabimana took the floor to weigh in on the deliberations that had happened earlier, telling court that he felt embarrassed by Rusesabagina’s claims that he is not Rwanda yet they wage war on the country in order for him to become President.
Nsabimana, known by the alias ‘Sankara’, told the court that “Rusesabagina had ambitions to be president of Rwanda”, wondering how he would have achieved such an ambition when he was not Rwandan.
“We started a war on Rwanda, failed in our mission and were captured. It’s embarrassing for him to claim that he’s not Rwandan,” Nsabimana said, praying to court to fast track the hearing because he had already made progress in his case before it was merged with that of Rusesabagina, and 19 others.
10. Rusesabagina in good health: “He looks healthy. I thought he would be very frail and thin,” one of the diplomats was overheard saying as they observed Rusesabagina to and from the stand. Recent reports, mainly fuelled by his family, suggested that the 66-year-old was in poor health and needed urgent medical care. A fit- and stout looking Rusesabagina however appeared to go against recent suggestions that he was in ill-health as he hopped into the waiting Rwanda Correctional Service (RCS) truck.