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MEPs ‘strongly condemn’ conviction of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero

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STRASBOURG — The European Parliament on Thursday denounced the “illegal arrest” and conviction of Rwandan politician Paul Rusesabagina and urged the EU to ramp up its efforts to secure his release.

Rusesabagina, a prominent critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, was sentenced last month by the country’s High Court to 25 years in prison for allegedly supporting terrorism. He rejects those charges, and several human rights organizations, as well as the U.S. State Department, have expressed concerns about the trial’s fairness. Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmès openly criticized that “Rusesabagina did not receive a fair and impartial trial.”

The case triggered international attention not just because Rusesabagina is a Belgian citizen and U.S. resident, but also because he received international praise for saving hundreds of lives during the 1994 genocide in the central African country. His actions inspired the 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda.”

In a nonbinding resolution adopted by a 660-2, with 18 abstentions, the European Parliament said it “strongly condemns” the conviction, which it said was “exemplary of the human rights violations in Rwanda.”

The text “calls for the immediate release of Mr. Rusesabagina on humanitarian grounds” and urges the EU Delegation to Rwanda as well as embassies of EU countries to “strongly convey this request” to Rwandan authorities.

“Paul Rusesabagina was forced to make confessions … without the presence of a lawyer,” Belgian Social Democratic MEP Kathleen Van Brempt told Parliament in a debate before the vote. She added that Rusesabagina was 67 years old and in need of medical care, which meant that his 25-year sentence “is de facto a death sentence.”

The resolution also criticized the “illegal arrest” of Rusesabagina, who has been living in exile for about 25 years. Rusesabagina said he was kidnapped in August 2020 when he was tricked into boarding a flight from Dubai to Burundi, which instead landed in Rwanda’s capital Kigali.

Upon arrival, Rusesabagina was immediately arrested and charged with terrorism for his links to the National Liberation Front, the armed wing of his opposition party that has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in the past. Rusesabagina has, however, denied he supports any violence or killings.

Belgian Christian Democratic MEP Tom Vandenkendelaere said “the way” Rusesabagina was arrested “should have called for forceful action from the EU,” and urged the bloc to now increase the pressure on Kigali.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen vowed at the start of her term to focus on improving and expanding relationships with African countries. But the initiative has often been overshadowed by major crises during von der Leyen’s term, most notably the coronavirus pandemic.

A Commission spokesperson said Thursday that the EU was “aware of the reports that Mr. Rusesabagina did not receive a fair trial, especially with regard to his right of defense. We have consistently made Rwandan authorities aware of our expectations, that the rights … for a fair trial must be fully respected.”

The spokesperson added, “We have raised the case, including at the highest level,” but did not comment on whether the Commission would take further steps now that calls for a fair trial seem to have been ignored.

Rwanda’s embassy to the EU could not be reached for comment.

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