A court in Kigali has adjourned the hearing of an appeal in ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero Paul Rusesabagina’s case, after concerns were raised over his absence from the proceedings.
Lawyers of his co-accused raised concerns as to whether Mr Rusesabagina, who was neither present nor represented at the Monday hearing, was duly summoned as the prosecution demanded that the trial goes on in his absence on grounds that he declined to appear in court with no valid reason.
The court is hearing the appeal by the prosecution, some defendants and civil parties in the case in which the 67-year old was handed a 25-year prison sentence after being convicted of terror charges, alongside 20 co-accused who were handed various sentences.
The co-accused were convicted of being members of an armed group linked to the deadly 2018 and 2019 attacks in southern and western Rwanda.
The court read its verdict on September 20, 2021.
But the prosecution appealed on grounds that the penalties were “lenient”, while other convicts want the court to lower the penalties.
Civil parties, who include those who lost loved ones and properties in the attacks, also appealed for more damages.
However, as the appeal hearing started Monday, the absence of Rusesabagina sparked debate with a section of the defence lawyers questioning the prosecution’s version regarding his summons and alleged refusal to appear in court.
According to the prosecution, there was evidence that Rusesabagina was informed about the trial date within time and through formal channels, but he refused to turn up.
Prosecutor Jean Pierre Habarurema read to the court a report by the Nyarugenge prison authorities, where Rusesabagina is held, indicating that he was formally notified about the trial date on December 30, 2021 but refused to acknowledge receipt of the summon paper by signing it.
Prosecution further cited a report by the prison administration indicating that Rusesabagina declined to undergo a Covid-19 test in preparation to attend the Monday trial.
“The prosecution finds that Rusesabagina was duly notified according to criminal procedures, and I submit that the case proceeds in his absence as per provisions of the law in such circumstances,” said Habarurema.
Jean Rugeyo, one of the defense lawyers representing two of the defendants, argued, however, that prison authorities’ report could not serve as a basis that Rusesabagina was duly notified and declined to appear in court since prisons do not have the competence to serve summons under the law.
“Legally speaking, what validity do these reports by the prison authorities have with regard to summons if the entity doesn’t have that competence? It is for that reason that we request that today’s proceedings be suspended to allow one of the defendants who is absent, that is Paul Rusesabagina, to be duly summoned,” he told the court.
Ariette Murekatete, lawyer for two of the 20 defendants who appeared in court Monday, told the court that as per the law only a bailiff or a court registrar have the competence to serve court summons, hence the court needs to scrutinise conclusions around his summons and failure to turn up for the proceedings.
The court is expected to pronounce itself on the matter at 4pm Tuesday when the court will communicate further date for the appeal trial.
The 67-year Paul Rusesabagina, who rose to fame after a 2004 Hollywood movie that depicted his heroic acts in saving Tutsis during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, was convicted of several counts of terror-related charges, alongside his 20 co-accused in the seven month-long trial whose verdict was read on September 20, 2021.
He and his legal counsel boycotted the trial since March 2021 after he indicated that he expected no justice from the court.
His family and supporters rejected the case as politically motivated, and did not appeal the verdict.
The crimes the group was convicted of, which include murder, arson, abduction, forming an armed rebel group, membership to a terror group, committing terror acts, illegal use of explosives, among others, are linked to activities of MRCD/FNL outfits which Rusesabagina created.
Eight of the convicts, including former FLN spokesperson Callixte Nsabimana, aka, Sankara, were handed 20 years in prison, while the rest got between three and 10-year jail terms.