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Paul Rusesabagina, ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Hero, Gives Jailhouse Interview


KIGALI, Rwanda — The former hotelier lauded as a hero during the 1994 Rwanda genocide says he was duped by the Rwandan authorities into returning to his home country last month to face charges of terrorism and murder, boarding a plane he thought was going to Burundi instead.

Paul Rusesabagina, whose story inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” made the assertion in an interview to on Tuesday — as government officials listened in — at the Kigali Metropolitan Police headquarters, where he has been held for more than two weeks.

A prominent government critic who had been living in exile in Texas, Mr. Rusesabagina, 66, said that during his first few days of custody in the hands of Rwandan intelligence operatives, he was kept tied up and did not know where he was. His treatment has improved since then, he said.

Mr. Rusesabagina said he was giving the interview voluntarily, but he appeared to be speaking under duress.

In the interview, which was authorized by the government, Mr. Rusesabagina offered an account of how he came to vanish from an airport in Dubai — and then show up in handcuffs days later in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. But his story also raised more questions about the circumstances of his disappearance, which created a sensation, in part because of his movie fame.

Mr. Rusesabagina, who has lived for years in Belgium and the United States, said he thought the private plane he was boarding in Dubai was bound for Bujumbura, Burundi, where he planned to speak to churches at the invitation of a local pastor.

Instead, he said, when he stepped outside the aircraft after landing in the predawn hours of Aug. 29, he was surrounded by Rwandan soldiers and realized he was not in Burundi but in neighboring Rwanda, where he had last been 16 years ago. He said it was a surprise.

Asked how he reacted, Mr. Rusesabagina said, “Imagine how you would feel if you find yourself where you are not supposed to be.”

Mr. Rusesabagina’s account came barely a week after President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, breaking his silence about the arrest, said he had been lured into coming back “on the basis of what he believed and what he wanted to do.”

Mr. Rusesabagina’s family insists that he would never have voluntarily returned to Rwanda. They have accused the Kagame government of kidnapping him from Dubai, and demanded to know more about the circumstances of his transfer.

The Rwandan government had been trying for at least a decade to apprehend Mr. Rusesabagina, who was catapulted to fame by the 2004 movie, in which he was played by the actor Don Cheadle.

To much of the world, Mr. Rusesabagina is a hero who risked his own life to shelter more than 1,200 Rwandans from slaughter. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2005.

The Rwandan government, though, calls him a dangerous subversive who has supported anti-government groups that have launched attacks on Rwanda. A court in Kigali on Monday brought 13 charges against him, including terrorism, complicity in kidnap and murder and forming a rebel group. On Thursday, he was denied bail and detained for at least another 30 days.

Mr. Rusesabagina’s supporters say that Mr. Kagame, who tolerates virtually no dissent inside his country, is seeking to sideline a potential political rival.

Mr. Rusesabagina said in the interview that he is innocent of the charges against him.

The interview was conducted in the room where Mr. Rusesabagina is being held, a stark, clean space with a bed covered with mosquito netting. Mr. Rusesabagina was dressed in khaki pants, a suit jacket and loafers, and was wearing a gold watch.

Listening in were his two lawyers — whom the government says he selected from a list they gave him — and officials with the Rwanda Investigation Bureau and the police, dressed in civilian clothes. Mr. Rusesabagina’s family said in interviews that they hired a different set of lawyers in Rwanda who have not been allowed to see him.

But he dismissed his family’s concerns about his representation, saying, “I chose my lawyers and I am happy with them. But my family is not informed.”

Mr. Rusesabagina said that he had high blood pressure and that the Rwandan authorities had sent doctors to see him.

“A lot of people come,” he said. “They talk to me. They even clean my room sometimes. They give me food. They are very kind. Everything has been smooth. So far, so good.”

For whatever light the interview shed on his situation, Mr. Rusesabagina’s account was at times muddled.

He could not say, for example, what happened to him during the three days between his flight from Dubai and his reappearance in Kigali.

“Well, I was taken somewhere,” he said. “I do not know where. I was tied — the leg, the hands, face. I could not see anything. I don’t know where I was.”

Asked whether he had been interrogated, Mr. Rusesabagina said, “Not that much.”

Pressed to explain further, he said: “No, not really. Nobody interrogated me. Yeah.”

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