Rusesabagina boycotted Monday’s verdict after saying he did not expect justice to be served in a trial he called a “sham”.
The case has been high profile since Rusesabagina, 67, was arrested in August 2020 after what he described as a kidnapping in Dubai by Rwandan authorities.
He was accused of supporting an armed wing of his opposition political platform, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change. The group claimed responsibility for part of the 2018 and 2019 attacks in the south of the country in which nine Rwandans died.
“He founded a terrorist organization which attacked Rwanda, he contributed financially to terrorist activities,” Judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi said of Rusesabagina.
Rwandan prosecutors had requested the life imprisonment of the former hotelier, credited with saving more than 1,200 lives in the 1994 genocide. But Mukamurenzi said the sentence “should be reduced to 25 years” because he was his first conviction.
Since being portrayed by actor Don Cheadle as the hero of the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, US-based Rusesabagina has become a leading critic of President Paul Kagame.
Speaking to Al Jazeera in Brussels, Rusesabagina’s daughter Carine Kanimba said her father should be released and allowed to return home.
“This verdict means nothing to us. Our father has been kidnapped, ”Kanimba said. “He was dragged across international borders in violation of international law. “
“My father knows his rights have been violated… that’s why he decided to withdraw from the trial, and this is all political,” she said, adding that her father was “a political prisoner”. “The charges are completely invented. “
The girl said her family were “very worried” about Resesabagina’s health and feared he might die in prison.
“Every Friday we have a five minute call with my dad… he doesn’t seem comfortable. It looks like the prison authorities are pressuring him, preventing him from saying what he wants to say and preventing us from really saying what we want to say to him. And the call is really short. My father is emotionally strong, he is very strong emotionally. Physically, we are very, very worried.
Author Michela Wrong, who recently published a book on Rwanda, told Al Jazeera that the verdict was clearly a message to the opposition.
“It looks like a show trial, which is really about silencing dissent, making sure that anyone who stands up, criticizes and challenges Kagame just won’t be allowed to do so,” she said.
“The verdict makes it clear to people in the diaspora and criticizes Kagame that the government can take them wherever they are. “
Rusesabagina has been targeted for defying the Kagame government for years, Wrong said.
Belgian citizen and US resident, Rusesabagina received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts during the genocide.
Rusesabagina has denied all charges against him, while his supporters have described the trial as proof of Kagame’s ruthless treatment of political opponents.
The Rwandan government had said Rusesabagina would get a fair trial, but this raised concern in the international community. In December, 36 US senators wrote to Kagame urging him to release Rusesabagina.
“This was a show trial, rather than a fair judicial inquiry,” said Geoffrey Robertson QC, the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch expert on the case.
“The evidence against him has been disclosed but not contested. Given Mr. Rusesabagina’s age and poor health, this harsh sentence is likely to be a death sentence.
Prosecutors had requested a life sentence on nine counts, including “terrorism”, arson, hostage-taking and the formation of an armed rebel group he led from abroad.
Rusesabagina rose to global stardom after the Hollywood film, which depicts him risking his life to house hundreds of people as the manager of a luxury hotel in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, during the 100-day genocide when the ethnic group Hutus killed over 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi minority.
Cheadle was nominated for an Oscar for the role. Rusesabagina used his fame to highlight what he described as rights violations by the government of Kagame, a Tutsi rebel commander who seized power after his forces captured Kigali and ended the genocide.
Rusesabagina’s trial began in February, six months after arriving in Kigali on a flight from Dubai.
His supporters say he was kidnapped. The Rwandan government hinted that he had been made to board a private plane.
Human Rights Watch said at the time that her arrest amounted to “enforced disappearance,” which it characterized as a serious violation of international law.
Rusesabagina said he was gagged and tortured before being jailed, but Rwandan authorities denied.