Paul Rusesabagina was paraded to the press on August 31, 2020 by the Rwanda Investigation Bureau after being arrested through international cooperation. 

| Pool

Activist or terrorist? All eyes will be on trial of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero Paul Rusesabagina

What you need to know:

  • His full life story is more complicated than the typical movie script.
  • The ironic twist in Mr Rusesabagina’s tale is that some key officials in the current Rwandan regime were saved at his hotel, but they were the same folk reportedly attempting to kill him.

Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier who inspired the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’, is a highly divisive figure.

While the film portrays him as a hero for saving more than 1,200 lives during the 1994 genocide, depending on who you ask, the famous Rwandan man is either a luminary or a criminal.

This week, Mr Rusesabagina, 66, was paraded in Kigali by the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) as a wanted criminal. 

The agency said the former Hôtel des Mille Collines general manager had been arrested through international cooperation on suspicion of being a founder, leader, sponsor and member “of violent, armed, extremist terror outfits including MRCD and PDR-Ihumure, operating out of various places in the region and abroad”.

Businye Johnston, Rwanda’s Attorney-General and Justice minister, accused the outspoken critic of President Paul Kagame of “wreaking terror on Rwandans” and vowed to bring justice to “those suspected of masterminding, sponsoring or financing terror against Rwandans”.

Rwandan officials, however, are yet to give details on exactly how and when he was arrested and brought to Rwanda. His family says he was abducted, that he had travelled to Dubai last Thursday before he disappeared.

While Rwanda insists that he was apprehended via "international cooperation", the United Arab Emirates has come out to deny any involvement in his arrest, saying he left Dubai legally last Friday aboard a private jet.

His arrest is causing some uproar in the West where many who watched Hotel Rwanda are indignant over Rwanda's move, perhaps unable to reconcile the public profile of a celebrated hero with the grave charges that he now faces.

Complicated life story

His full story, however, is more complicated than the typical movie script.

In the film, he is portrayed as a hotel manager with a happy family. With immense courage, he saves thousands of vulnerable stuck at his luxury hotel as the Rwandan genocide goes on outside.

In real life, he has made several enemies owing to his sustained criticism of the current Rwandan regime over the years. For instance, in a video he published on New Year’s eve, he told his followers to speed up "the liberation struggle".

“Rwandan people can no longer stand the quality and all kinds of ill treatment directed to us by the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) regime. Time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda as all political means have been tried and failed,” he said.

“It is time to attempt our last resort, hence I plead my unreserved resort that our youth, the National Liberation Forces (NLF) launches attacks against the Kagame army in order to free the Rwandan people.”

Born in 1954, Mr Rusesabagina, a Hutu, was raised in the former Murama commune in Gitarama, the Southern Province of Rwanda. He went to an adventist school and studied theology in college, but he went straight into the hotel business afterwards.

Today, he is the founder of Belgium-based political outfit PDR-Ihumure, and chief mobiliser of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), a coalition of armed forces with a base in Minembwe, Democratic Republic of Congo. 

The NLF is the armed wing of MRCD and has declared its ambition to remove Kagame from power by force.

From hero to enemy of the State

So how does a man go from inspiring a Hollywood blockbuster, even praised in the past by president Kagame for his actions, to becoming an enemy of the State? 

For his heroic actions, he was awarded the Lantos Human Rights Prize as well as the US Presidential Medal of Freedom by former president George Bush Jr.

Some survivors of the genocide, however, dispute certain details of his story. 

Mr Rusesabagina had left the hotel for another one known as Hotel des Diplomates, frequented by senior officials of the Hutu regime. 

While working there, he helped prepare food for the inauguration of the interim government that had come into office after then President Juvénal Habyarimana was killed in April 1994 when his plane was shot down over Kigali.

When the war began, he moved to Hotel Milles des Collines, after its Belgian manager left the country. The hotel was owned by a Belgian at the time and hosted various humanitarian and diplomatic delegations.

Milles Collines Hotel in Nyarugenge, Kigali where the movie Hotel Rwanda was shot. The man who inspired the film, Paul Rusesabagina, was arrested by Rwandan investigators.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

That 1,268 people who were hosted there were neither beaten nor killed has led some historians to surmise that the facility may have been too sensitive even for the Hutu regime to attempt attacking it.

Still, some survivors who were at the hotel accused Mr Rusesabagina of extortion. He was also accused of leaking room numbers and guest lists to the military, threatening their lives.

In a testimony before a Westminster Magistrate’s Court, Mr Rusesabagina claimed the “help of God” as well as acquaintances and friends who helped him keep them safe. He had been invited as a witness in a 2008 case in which three Rwandan fugitives were wanted back home to face trial for crimes related to the genocide.

The magistrate, Anthony Evans, ruled that Mr Rusesabagina was an “implacable opponent” of the Kagame regime.

Assassination attempts?

Mr Rusesabagina had claimed in court documents that he fled Rwanda in 1996 after local intelligence officers reportedly tried to kill him. 

The ironic twist in Mr Rusesabagina’s tale is that some key officials in the current Rwandan regime were saved at his hotel, but they were the same folk attempting to kill him.

When Mr Kagame wanted to honour him, he failed to show up in 2002. He later returned in 2003 with a film crew to shoot ‘Hotel Rwanda’. 

The shooting and interviews were allowed to go on, and some officials including those in Kagame's administration shared their stories to complete the movie. They shot 15 hours of footage.

He did not attend the film's screening in Kigali in 2004 citing safety concerns, but allowed his wife and child to travel. 

In his defence of those wanted for trial in Rwanda, Mr Rusesabagina argued they may not get a fair trial and that Kagame’s regime was targeting every “successful Hutu”.

The MRCD, which Mr Rusesabagina leads, is accused of launching attacks on Nyabimata Sector in Nyaruguru District. 

Now, as the world watches, it will be interesting to see how his trial goes.