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The Perspective, by Edward Bwalya Phiri: Hotel Rwanda hero’s trial exposes Kagame’s tyrannical tendencies

The June 19, 2018 terror attacks in Nyabimata of Nyaruguru District in Rwanda left 9 people dead and many others injured. Some property was looted while others were set ablaze. Among those who lost their lives are; Joseph Habarurema, 25, who was shot in the head and his body was set ablaze; Fidele Munyaneza, 45 was shot after being asked to run away and he succumbed to gunshot wounds two months later and Anathole Maniraho 33, was shot after being ordered to lie face down.

Other victim in the attack were; Diane Jackeline Mutesi 28, who was shot in the head, cheekbone, neck and hip; Isaac Niweshuti 17, was burned beyond recognition; Jeanino Nyiyobuhungiro 23, was shot in the shoulder and died on the scene; Hilarie Mukabahizi 45, was shot and died on the spot; Samule Nteziryayo 34, was shot and died on the spot; and Ornella Sine Atete 13, was burned alive in a car set ablaze.

On The Perspective today, focus is Rwanda’s terrorism trial of the 67 years old, Paul Rusesagina and 20 others. The trial raised a lot of interest across the globe, not because of the profile of the defendants, but because of the manner in which it was conducted.

Paul Rusesagina is the hero depicted by the American actor, Don Cheadle in the Oscars nominated film, Hotel Rwanda. Mr. Rusesagina, who himself is a laureate of an award for saving over 1,200 Tutsis, during the 1994 Rwandan genocide that claimed about a million people. On December 16, 2006, former POTUS George Bush presented Mr Rusesagina with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for risking his life to save many lives, when he was a manager at the Hotel des Mille Collines.

Mr Rusesagina, who had been a critic of President Paul Kagame and his government, is a citizen of Belgium and a legal resident of the U.S. He formed the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change [MRCD, French acronyms] coalition, as a vehicle to usher in political change in Rwanda. He was arrested in August 2020 and charged with terrorism, after being lured into the country. But many people have argued that he was simply abducted from Dubai where he had gone for business. The arrest was in connection with the terror activities in the south-west [Nyabimata in particular] of the country, between 2018 and 2019.

The Nyabimata attacks were alleged to have been orchestrated by MRCD through its militia wing, the National Liberation Front [FLN, French acronyms]. A video message that was posted on YouTube and circulated in the media, said that, “Time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda… I plead my unreserved support to our youth, the National Liberation Forces’ [FLN] launches against the Kagame Army in order to free the Rwandan people.”

It is trite that in a civilised society, change of government must be through accepted legal means. It’s obvious that the MRCD chose a wrong method of liberating Rwanda, through the orchestration of terror. How do you begin killing the people you are trying to liberate? The world cannot only frown upon such acts, but can also endorse the censure of everyone involved. It’s good that the wrongdoers have been called to account, the perpetrators of these atrocious acts needed to be brought to book.

However, it is the manner in which justice was sought, which leaves much to be desired. The legal maxim, “He who comes to equity [justice], must come with clean hands” exemplifies Jesus’ principle that he who has never sinned must be the first to condemn another. When a woman arraigned with eloping was brought to him for trial, his dictum was that, “He who has not sinned let him be the first to hurl a stone at her.”

As a commentary of Mr Rusesagina trial process, this discourse seeks to highlight the principle of the fair trial guarantees. For starters, Rwanda is a state party to a number of international treaties that guarantee fair trial rights to accused persons. There are a number of treaties that speak to this principle.

Specific provisions are; the protection from torture and inhuman treatment, as provided for under Article 5 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights [UDHR] 1948 and Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] 1966. The presumption of innocence as provided for under Article 11 UDHR, Article 14(2) ICCPR, Article 7(1) (b) of the African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights [ACHPR] 1981 and Article 29(2) Constitution of Rwanda as revised in 2015.

Other provisions are; the right to a fair trial in a competent, independent and impartial court or tribunal as provided for under Article 10 UDHR, Article 14(1) ICCPR, Article 7(1) (d) ACHPR and Article 29(3) of the Constitution of Rwanda. There is also the right to time and facility for preparation of the defence and to freely commune with counsel of choice, as provided for under Article 14(3) (b) ICCPR, Article 7(1) (c) ACHPR and Article 29(1) of the Constitution of Rwanda. Lastly, the right to personally examine or have witness against defendant examined by counsel as provided for under Article 14(3) (e) ICCPR.

The foregoing provisions are a few, among the provisions that seek to protect any person arraigned with any criminal offence. And it appears Mr Rusesagina did not get protection of the law as highlighted above. His lawyers and family allege that when he was arrested and before he could be tried, some senior government officials, including the President appeared on TV to allege that Mr Rusesagina was guilty.

They further alleged that he was tortured and that he was not allowed to see his own lawyers, but was instead assigned lawyers chosen by the state. They also alleged that the materials that were brought by his lawyers to help him prepare his defence were confiscated from him and that he had no case file.

A British Human Rights Barrister, Geoffery Robertson QC reported that there were, “numerous violations of Paul Rusesagina’s rights. These include denial of the facilities necessary for him to prepare his defence and violations of his right to confidential communication with his lawyers.” These and other reasons led to Mr Rusesagina to withdraw from attending the trial in March 2021, shortly after commencement of trial.

Mr. Robertson further reported that, “Even before Mr Rusesagina withdrew, the court protected a key witness by disallowing cross-examination and refusing even to require him to testify on oath. This witness – Bishop Constantin Niyomwungeri, the man who allegedly tricked Mr. Rusesagina into boarding a flight to Rwanda – was key… The so called trial is not a real adversarial proceeding: it has become a spectacle in which the state’s version of events is not allowed to be challenged.”

Rusesagina acknowledged membership of the MRCD and admitted sending money, but said he never instruct anyone to target civilians. Callixte ‘Sankara’ Nabimana tried to exonerate him that he was not a member of the militia FLN, but the court argued that the two groups were indistinguishable and, and therefore referred to them as the MRCD – FLN.

On Monday 20, 2021, Rusesagina was found guilty of terrorism related crimes, and it was held that, “Rusesagina is guilty of being a member of a terror group and participation in terror activities…His act of terrorism led to death.” And he was eventually sentenced to 25 years imprisonment.

And reacting to the verdict and the sentence slapped on Rusesagina, the U.S Department of State through its spokesperson Ned Price issued a statement on September 20, 2021, which ready that, “The reported lack of fair trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict… We are concerned by the objections Mr. Rusesagina raised related to his lack of confidential, unimpeded access to his lawyers and relevant case documents and his initial lack of access to counsel.”

But in response to the international outcry, the Rwanda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, retorted that, “The victims of terrorist acts of the FLN, admittedly less famous, have just as much right to justice as Mr. Rusesagina and his co-defendants.” Government was right, this statement cannot be faulted. Unfortunately, it is condemning them for not protecting Paul Rusesagina’s guarantees for a fair trial.
Article Article 42 of the Constitution of Rwanda guarantees the promotion of human rights by the state, and Article Article 43 speaks to the protection of rights and freedoms. It is clear that Rusesagina’s freedoms and rights were breached with impunity by state agencies, thereby exposing the regime and casting a blight on the nation’s human rights record.

It is not in dispute that the FLN committed a serious political blunder, which resulted into crimes crimes against humanity. And it is also not in dispute that the government of Rwanda committed flagrant human rights abuses against Mr Rusesagina and his co-accused. And the bottom-line is that, two wrongs cannot make a right. For today I will end here; it’s Au revoir, from EBP.

For comments: elbardogma@yahoo.com

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