By Clement Uwiringiyimana
KIGALI - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday he had raised with Rwanda's president U.S. concerns over the jailing of Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed in the film "Hotel Rwanda" sheltering hundreds of people during the 1994 genocide.
Rusesabagina, 67, a U.S. permanent resident, was sentenced last September to 25 years in prison over eight terrorism charges tied to an organization opposed to President Paul Kagame's rule.
Rwanda's foreign minister Vincent Biruta said he was convicted lawfully, but Rusesabagina has denied all the charges and refused to take part in a trial that he and his supporters have called a political sham. The United States in May determined he had been wrongfully detained.
Rusesabagina, who was feted around the world after being portrayed by actor Don Cheadle in 2004's "Hotel Rwanda," is a vocal critic of Kagame. He is being held in a Rwandan prison.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Biruta in the capital Kigali, Blinken said Washington had been clear about its concerns related to Rusesabagina's trial and conviction, particularly what he described as "the lack of fair trial guarantees."
"We continue to urge the government to address concerns about the legal protections afforded to him and his case and establish safeguards to prevent similar outcomes in the future," Blinken said.
Blinken said he had discussed Rusesabagina's case with Kagame in his meeting earlier on Thursday but declined to say how Kagame responded.
Biruta pushed back on Blinken's comments.
"He was arrested. He was tried and convicted along with 20 others, 20 other accomplices for serious crimes ... And this was done lawfully under both the Rwandan and international laws. Therefore, Rwanda will continue to abide by our laws and the decisions made by our judiciary," Biruta said.
Rusesabagina has acknowledged having a leadership role in the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), but denied responsibility for attacks carried out by its armed wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN). The trial judges said the two groups were indistinguishable.
Rusesabagina's family, and the families of other Americans and U.S. permanent residents also jailed abroad, have asked U.S. President Joe Biden to intervene to secure the release of their loved ones.
Washington's "wrongfully detained" designation means the responsibility for Rusesabagina's case will be transferred from the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs to the office of the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs, effectively raising the issue's political profile.
Biden has also come under growing pressure from families after the detention and conviction of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner in Russia, which has boosted the prominence of the issue. Washington and Moscow have been engaged in talks for a potential prisoner swap for Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine also detained in Russia.
(Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Njuwa Maina; Editing by David Holmes)