CHICAGO – Feb. 17, 2021 – Paul Rusesabagina summed up Day 1 of his trial best in his brief opening statement, where he told the Judge and the Court: “I am a Belgian. I was not extradited. I was kidnapped.” These words set the tone for the remainder of the day.
The first day makes it clear that this is a show trial. It featured Rusesabagina in court with the nineteen others with whom his trial is linked, even though Paul knows only a handful of these individuals. The accused are lined up in chairs with no desks and no room for the materials they might need to defend themselves. Their lawyers are in the back of the room and the accused have no access to counsel except when they are standing next to each other at the witness stand. In fact, the press is better placed than the lawyers, with multiple cameras and print reporters placed between the lawyers and their clients.
Paul’s legal team, with only Rwandan lawyer Gatera Gashebana allowed to represent him inside of the country, prepared multiple legal filings detailing the irregularities so far in this case. While these should have been dealt with by the court before the trial started, the rush to judgement left those motions open until today. Paul and Maitre Gashebana quickly brought up the irregularities when Paul’s turn at the witness stand came, and the judge ordered that the court go through them one at a time.
The next several hours were devoted to the only issues covered on Day 1, the question of whether the irregularities in Paul’s arrest and detention meant that Paul should be immediately released. The discussion revolved largely around Paul’s citizenship, even though legally this is a secondary consideration to whether Paul was kidnapped or came to Rwanda voluntarily.
Gatera, with some statements from Paul, laid out the facts. Paul fled Rwanda in 1996 as a refugee, and when he gained a refugee passport from the United Nations he became officially stateless. Then in 2000, Paul became a naturalized citizen of his new home, Belgium. At that time neither Belgian nor Rwanda allowed dual citizenship, and Paul made a formal statement renouncing his Rwandan citizenship. Further, Paul traveled to Rwanda in both 2003 and 2004 during the filming of Hotel Rwanda. At that time he used his Belgian passport, was required to get a visa to enter Rwanda, and was officially accepted as a Belgian citizen. There should be no question of his citizenship at this point.
As Paul stated: “When I wanted to come to Rwandan in 2003, I came as a Belgian, and I was received as a Belgian. It is only today that I’m here illegally because I was kidnapped and I did not come by my passport. I never regained my Rwandan nationality because I never claimed it back.”
The Rwandan prosecutors only argument is that Paul never renounced his citizenship in a formal way to them. This is contrary to the fact that in 2000, any Rwandan taking citizenship in another country would automatically lose their Rwandan citizenship. It was also contrary to the fact that the Rwandan government accepted Paul’s entrance to the country on a Belgian passport, thus effectively accepting his Belgian citizenship.
While this point took most of the time at trial and it is an incredibly important political issue, it is also one of the least important legal issues in the case. Politically, Paul’s Beligan citizenship gives him all of the protections of that country, including diplomatic support in his current situation.
The central legal fact, though, is that Paul was kidnapped and brought to Rwanda. He was lured from the United States to Dubai, and then further lured onto a plane to Rwanda. This is illegal under international law, US Law, Belgian law and Rwandan law. The Rwandan prosecutors insist that he came voluntarily, but there is significant evidence, including the government’s own witnesses, that Paul was lured to Rwanda through a plan by the Rwandan government. Rwandan President Paul Kagame even confirmed shortly after Paul’s arrest that the plan to lure him to Rwanda worked “flawlessly.” If Paul was kidnapped, then the entire process after that point is illegal, and he must be released.
The court adjourned until February 26th to discuss the matter of Paul’s citizenship and possibly also the kidnapping, although that was not fully explored. In future weeks Paul’s team plans to bring up other irregularities that should stop the trial, including access to legal documents, access to counsel of his own choice, and Paul’s deteriorating health situation.