The Government of Rwanda has welcomed the sentences rendered by the High Court Chamber for International Crimes in the trial of Paul Rusesabagina and 20 others, all linked to the National Liberation Front (FLN), the armed wing of the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) coalition, of which he was the leader.
The 21 defendants are accused of terrorism charges, which saw Rusesabagina sentenced to 25 years in prison after he was found guilty of forming or being a member of a terrorist organisation, responsible for armed attacks on the Rwandan territory between 2018 and 2019.
The Rwanda Government Spokesperson, Yolande Makolo, said on Monday that the protracted trial was an opportunity to expose the terror activities of Rusesabagina and his group and also ensure that the victims get much awaited justice.
“This lengthy trial has exposed the terrorist activities of the FLN group led by Rusesabagina. The evidence against the accused was indisputable, and the people of Rwanda will feel safer now justice has been delivered,” Makolo said.
“The trial has been a long and painful ordeal for the victims of FLN attacks, particularly for those who were called upon to testify. Our thoughts today are with these brave witnesses, and the families and friends of the victims,” she added.
The panel of judges led by Antoine Muhima, read out the charges related to acts of terrorism, focusing particularly on two organised attacks that took place in 2018, which they based on to conclude that MRCD/FLN can be designated as terror organisation.
The Government statement said that the brutal and unprovoked attacks, carried out by the FLN, tragically took the lives of nine innocent Rwandans, including children aged 13 and 17. They left many others gravely injured, and caused significant material and economic damage in South-West Rwanda.
Among those sentenced was the FLN’s commander and spokesperson, Callixte Nsabimana, who was arrested in 2019. Prior to this, he had claimed responsibility for the 2018 attacks, and had announced plans for further attacks. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, having pleaded guilty to most charges.
Another FLN spokesperson, Herman Nsengimana, was sentenced to 5 years in prison. A member of the CNRD (Conseil National pour la Renaissance et la Démocratie), Nsengimana was arrested in 2019 in Congo’s South Kivu province along with over 400 other CNRD insurgents. The CNRD is a splinter faction of the Congo-based FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda). It was led by FLN co-founder Colonel Wilson Iratekega until his death in January 2020.
Also convicted was the FLN’s founder, Paul Rusesabagina, who was sentenced to twenty-five years. Prior to the trial, Rusesabagina publicly admitted to founding the group as the armed wing of his political party, the MRCD (Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change). He had repeatedly expressed support for the group’s activities, including after the 2018 attacks.
The first FLN attack took place on 19 June 2018, in Nyabimata, Nyaruguru District. A subsequent attack took place nearby, in Kitabi, Nyamagabe District on 15 December 2018. Nine Rwandan civilians lost their lives in the attacks. The victims included two children: Ornella Sine Atete (13), and Isaac Niwenshuti (17).
In December 2018, Callixte Nsabimana, also known as “Sankara”, took to international radio and social media to announce that FLN had claimed responsibility for these attacks. He was arrested in April 2019, and immediately pled guilty to 16 charges of terrorism.
The FLN is the military arm of the PDR-Ihumure party founded by Paul Rusesabagina, and the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) political coalition which he led.
Also in December 2018, Rusesabagina issued a statement on the MRCD-Ubumwe YouTube channel (later removed but can be found here) as the “President of MRCD-FLN”. In the statement he announced that FLN had “launched a military struggle to liberate Rwandan people”, and that “the time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda”. He pledged his “unreserved support that our youth, the National Liberation Forces, launches against Kagame army, in order to free Rwandan people”.
On 21 October 2019 Belgian Police searched Rusesabagina house in Brussels and on 13 May 2020 Belgian Prosecution Authority sent to NPPA evidence obtained from the inspection of computers and telephones seized during the search.
On August 31, 2020, the Rwanda Investigation Bureau announced that Rusesabagina was in its custody. He had been the subject of an arrest warrant and was subsequently charged with multiple offences, including terrorism for founding the National Liberation Front (FLN).
On 3 December 2020, the High Court Chamber for International Crimes agreed to the request to merge the trial of Rusesabagina and his co-accused.
The trial which was initially scheduled to begin on 26 January 2021 was postponed due to COVID concerns. Proceedings eventually commenced on 17 February 2021. A live stream of the trial, including one with English translation, was available online throughout.
The court was also shown various documents, including e-mail message records, revealing that Rusesabagina was in direct contact with Antoine Hakizimana (aka Gen Jeva), commander of the FLN’s operations in the northern region of the DRC. In the exchange, Hakizimana updated Rusesabagina on the group’s military operations and asked him for additional financial assistance. Rusesabagina thanked him for the report and promised to provide funding.
Further evidence was provided by Dr Michelle Martin, an American human rights activist and professor, and former volunteer at the Chicago-based Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation. In her testimony, during which she displayed and read items from Rusesabagina’s personal e-mail correspondence, she expressed her belief that the foundation “operated as a political organisation whose apparent primary goal was overthrowing the Rwandan Government”.
The trial was presided over by high court judge Antoine Muhima. The prosecutorial team included: Deputy Prosecutor General Angelique Habyarimana and National Prosecutors Claudine Dushimimana, Bonaventure Ruberwa, Jean Kamali Habimana, and Jean Pierre Habarurema.