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‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero was tricked onto plane and into arrest, pastor testifies

Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film "Hotel Rwanda"
Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda,” attends a court hearing Feb. 26 in Kigali, Rwanda. The judge on Friday rejected Rusesabagina’s argument in his terrorism trial that a court there cannot try him because he is no longer a citizen.
(Muhizi Olivier / Associated Press)

A key piece of the mystery around the arrest of the man who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda” became clear Friday when a pastor told a court in the capital, Kigali, that he worked with someone from the Rwanda Investigation Bureau to trick Paul Rusesabagina onto a private plane from Dubai.

The pastor, Constantin Niyomwungere, alleged that Rusesabagina, who faces terror-related charges, had acknowledged that rebels backed by his opposition platform had killed Rwandans.

“Myself, the pilot and cabin crew knew we were coming to Kigali. The only person who didn’t know where we were headed was Paul,” Niyomwungere said.

The 66-year-old Rusesabagina, once praised for saving hundreds of ethnic Tutsis from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide while a hotel manager, now faces nine charges, including the formation of an irregular armed group; membership in a terrorist group; financing of terrorism; and murder, abduction and armed robbery as an act of terrorism.

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If convicted, he could face more than 20 years in prison.

The case of Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and U.S. resident and outspoken critic of longtime Rwandan President Paul Kagame, has drawn international concern. Rusesabagina disappeared in August during a visit to Dubai and was paraded in handcuffs days later in Rwanda.

His family asserts that the charges against him are politically motivated. Rusesabagina asserts that he was kidnapped. Rwanda’s president had hinted that Rusesabagina had been tricked into boarding a flight to Rwanda, a country he left in 1996.

In court on Friday, Rusesabagina denounced the pastor Niyomwungere, whom he has said “betrayed” him.

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Niyomwungere said an unnamed person connected him with Rusesabagina in 2017 in Brussels, and they become friends.

He said that in one conversation, Rusesabagina admitted that rebels backed by his opposition platform were responsible for an attack inside Rwanda. The pastor alleged that Rusesabagina showed no remorse.

Niyomwungere said last year he started working on a plan with the Rwanda Investigation Bureau to capture Rusesabagina. “I prayed to God to give me courage and arrest this man. I prayed for a month,” he said.

Opportunity came when Rusesabagina said he planned to travel to Burundi, which neighbors Rwanda. Niyomwungere said he alerted the Rwanda Investigation Bureau contact.

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Rwanda’s government has alleged that Rusesabagina was going to Burundi to coordinate with armed groups based there and in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

On Friday, Rusesabagina said all his rights have been taken away, and his international lawyers have been refused. Rwanda’s attorney general last month said in a video accidentally sent to Al-Jazeera that authorities had intercepted messages between Rusesabagina and his legal team.

“How can you say my rights have been respected when I spent the first three days of captivity at an unknown location, blindfolded, tied legs and hands?” Rusesabagina asked.

When the trial resumes Wednesday, the court will rule on whether Rusesabagina was kidnapped and is in Rwanda illegally. The court earlier rejected his argument that a Rwandan court cannot try him because he is no longer a citizen.

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Rusesabagina’s family has said he has no chance at a fair trial because of his outspoken criticism of Kagame and human rights abuses. They fear he might die behind bars from poor health.


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