There is an ongoing controversy over which lawyer exactly has right to defend “Hotel Rwanda” movie personality Paul Rusesabagina. The Chronicles is attempting to explain the fuss about who is, or not the rightful lawyer of one of Rwanda’s most high profile suspects.
Rusesabagina’s family has told The Chronicles that Rwandan authorities are not granting access for the team of lawyers they named to handle his case. One lawyer is in Rwanda, a renowned criminal lawyer, while the other six are from Europe, North America and Australia.
On the morning of Monday August 31, select journalists were called to the Rwanda Investigations Bureau (RIB). The person at the end of the phone said “people from DR Congo” would be presented at 10am.
It was one of very few news scoops government has kept for that long without even rumours circulating. Paul Rusesabagina was brought into a hall of waiting journalists. RIB Spokesman Dr Murangira B. Thierry read from a prepared text.
Then on September 5, lawyer David Rugaza appeared on state TV claiming to be Rusesabagina’s lawyer. He explained that his client was doing well in RIB custody and the file was due to be submitted to Prosecution for routine questioning in preparation for court.
Two days later on September 7, writing from the U.S, Rusasabagina’s family and the Hotel Rwanda Foundation issued a statement naming a team of seven international lawyers. They are seasoned criminal lawyer Gatera Gashabana – Rwanda, Kate Gibson – Australia, Jared Genser – US, Brian Tronic – US, Peter Robinson – US, Vincent Lurquin – Belgium and Philippe Larochelle – Canada.
Gatera Gashabana has handled some of the biggest cases in Rwanda. One of known clients is opposition politician Ingabire Victoire Umuhoza, whose cases went up to the Supreme Court but was then given clemency by President Paul Kagame after serving about half of her 15year jail. Many of the terrorism cases are handled by Gashabana.
The following day September 8, a bizarre incident happened; again select media were given access to follow as Rusesabagina arrived at the Prosecutor’s office when it received his file from RIB. This time though, Rusesabagina was accompanied by lawyer Rugaza and Emeline Nyembo.
Then several days later, this past Monday September 14, select media houses were called again that Rusesabagina was to appear at the Kicukiro Primary Court, located in the Kicukiro suburb of Kigali, about 5km away from the police station Rusesabagina being held.
In the court, amid tight security manned by heavily armed counterterrorism police, Rusesabagina appeared before Judge Dorothy Yankurije to file his bail application. Much of the talking was done by state prosecutors who presented 13 charges.
Rusesabagina declined to respond to all 13 charges, saying some did not qualify as criminal offenses and saying that he denied the accusations when he was questioned by Rwandan investigators. Instead, he told the judge in a very short verbal statement that he should instead be given bail. When decision time came on September 17, as expected the bail was not granted – meaning Rusesabagina was moved to a maximum security jail to await start of his trial.
Since the appearance of lawyer Rugaza, as Rusesabagina’s family has denounced the whole legal process in a ferocious international media campaign, the ordinary people who are also keenly following the case, have been wondering what exactly was going on. Why can’t he be allowed to get whatever lawyer he wants, said some on social media.
Rugaza told local media that he is not Rusesabagina’s “legal representative”, instead is his “assistant”.
The Chronicles spoke to seasoned lawyer, Counsel Nkundabarashi Moise from Trust Law Chambers about how lawyers are selected for suspects. He came to prominence last year when he successfully handled the Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ) Supreme Court petition challenging several articles of the new Penal Code.
Currently, Nkundabarashi is also defence counsel of Nsabimana Calixte alias Maj Sankara, the captured FLN rebel spokesman, the same rebel group whose actions Rusesabagina is being prosecuted. Rusesabagina and Sankara are known to each other.
Counsel Nkundabarashi said that the standard practice is that immediately a suspect reaches RIB, the first question is “Do you have a lawyer and can you afford one?”. When suspect has no lawyer, and cannot afford one, RIB immediately contacts the Rwanda Bar Association, which sends a list of lawyers available.
“It is legal responsibility of RIB to get a suspect a lawyer before questioning is conducted,” said Nkundabarashi, adding, “That is exactly what happens with all suspects and that is what happened with Rusesabagina. Besides, Rusesabagina, like all suspects had right to refuse the lawyer suggested to him, and another would be provided.”
Julien-Gustave Kavaruganda, President of the Bar Association, told The Chronicles that Rusesabagina was given list of three lawyers from which he selected the current team of two lawyers.
“Rusesabagina’s family announced team of seven years in the media. However, Rusesabagina himself has not given any indication he doesn’t want the current lawyers,” said Kavaruganda.
“Going forward, the two teams can either agree to work together, or the current team is asked to move out of the case by Rusesabagina himself. He will not be required to pay for service of the two lawyers because they are free of charge.”
According Carine Kabimba, Rusesabagina’s daughter, who has become the family’s media face, the Rwandan lawyer Gatera Gashabana has been trying since August 31 to access him, but has been blocked. It means, on the same day when Rusesabagina was presented to media, lawyer Gatera got to work, but has not accessed Rusesabagina.
The daughter Kabimba said: “Our international lawyers are ready to go see my father, however, the Rwandan authorities have made it impossible for them to get to him. Our lawyer in Rwanda, has been trying to represent my father since Aug 31st, he has tried multiple times to get close to him via proper procedures but the Rwandan government has not let him.”
“As his family, we cannot give up to set-up an independent defenders team only based on what he might have said in local or international press, as we have strong indications that he’s not speaking freely, especially on this topic.”
Senior Counsel Kavaruganda said that as per the Bar’s procedures, the Rwandan lawyer Gatera can simply show up and will be granted access to see Rusesagabina. However, for the international team, they have to write officially to the Rwanda Bar Association before being granted permission to represent Rusesabagina.
Kavaruganda said: “Rusesabagina like all suspects has absolute right to tell a Judge that be doesn’t want a given lawyer, and that lawyer steps aside immediately. Also, a family can help their relative to get a lawyer of their preference. Up to this point, we have not received any official communication from Rusesabagina’s international lawyers seeking to join the case.”
Rusesabagina’s family, through daughter Carine Kanimba, said they won’t give up until their preferred team of lawyers takes up the case.
She said: “Our father knows perfectly well he would get support from international lawyers in case of trouble, so it does not make sense that he has freely chosen two local lawyers that came out of nowhere…”
“As you can imagine, the Rwandan authorities are not collaborating on this process, which is therefore taking more time, but we will keep trying until we are 100% sure that our father gets to choose his lawyers freely and without any constraint.”
By press time, The Chronicles was yet to get comment from Prosecutor General’s office. Meanwhile, Rusesabagina has appealed against the 30-day preventive detention.