Paul Rusesabagina, the polarizing hero from the hit film “Hotel Rwanda”, admitted in a court in Kigali on Friday that he had helped form an armed group, but denied any role in its crimes.
Rusesabagina is famous for his portrayal of Don Cheadle in the 2004 film, in which a moderate hutu is shown saving hundreds of lives in a luxury hotel during the 1994 genocide, leaving about 800,000, mostly Tutsi, dead.
However, a more complex picture has emerged since he appeared in Kigali under arrest under mysterious circumstances last month, after years of living in Belgium and the United States.
He is on trial on 13 charges, including terrorism, financing and founding militant groups, murder, arson and conspiracy to involve children in armed groups.
Rusesabagina appeared in court on Friday dressed in Rwanda’s pink prison suit and accompanying pink mask to appeal his refusal of bail last week.
In 2017, Rusesabagina co-founded the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition party based abroad.
During the hearing, he admitted the formation of an armed wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN), which has claimed responsibility for a series of attacks in Nyungwe near the border with Burundi.
“We formed the FLN as an armed wing, not as a terrorist group, as the prosecution continues to say. I do not deny that the FLN committed crimes, but my role was diplomacy,” he told the court Friday.
“The agreement we signed to form the MRCD as a political platform included the formation of an armed wing called the FLN. But my work was under the political platform and I was responsible for diplomacy.”
In April 2019, the Rwandan authorities arrested the commander of the FLN, Callixte Nsabimana, who had previously claimed responsibility on social media for attacks, including setting fire to a passenger bus in 2018, leaving two dead and many wounded.
But in court, Nsabimana tried to distance himself from the killing of civilians.
“When we attacked the Nyungwe area, we had given FLN specific orders that no matter what operation they launch, it must be about destroying bridges, ambushing military vehicles, attacking government offices and police and military camps. We did not expect them to should attack “civilians,” Nsabimana said in court last year.
Nyungwe is a region popular with tourists who come to see endangered mountain gorillas, and the attacks prompted many western countries such as France, Germany, Canada and Australia to advise their nationals to travel to the area.
In a 2018 video supporting the FLN, Rusesabagina said: “It is time for us to use all possible means to bring about change in Rwanda, as all political means have been tried and failed.”
A polarizing hero
Rusesabagina left Rwanda in 1996 along with other moderates who believed that the place for political opposition was rapidly declining.
The release of the Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda” pushed him into the global spotlight, giving him a bigger platform for his criticism of Paul Kagame’s government.
Kagame, who has been in power since his troops wiped out the genocide regime in 1994, is fighting abroad for turning the country around.
But critics like Rusesabagina accuse his government of authoritarianism that rules through fear and crushes the opposition. Several critics of his regime have been murdered abroad.
As Rusesabagina became more critical, railings against Kagame’s anti-Hutu sentiment – an extremely sensitive issue in Rwanda – saw his image at home deteriorate as the regime attacked his character.
Opponents claimed he adorned his heroes, while some surviving groups accused him of profiting from their misery.
Rusesabagina’s family said he would never willingly return to Rwanda and the details of his arrest are still obscure.
In an interview with The New York Times, Rusesabagina, who spoke to Rwandan officials in the room, said he boarded a private jet in Dubai that he thought led him to Burundi but landed in Kigali instead.
His family says Rusesabagina has not been allowed to consult with lawyers of his choice.
A decision on his bail appeal will be made on October 2.