KIGALI: Fiercely outspoken Rwandan government critic Paul Rusesabagina, whose efforts to save people during the 1994 genocide inspired the Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda”, has been freed from prison after more than 900 days behind bars.
Rusesabagina was released late Friday away from the media glare and will return to the United States after the Kigali government commuted his 25-year sentence on terrorism charges.
His detention had thrown a spotlight on Rwanda’s record of crushing political dissent and free speech under President Paul Kagame.
Rusesabagina was convicted in September 2021 of backing an armed rebel group after a trial that his supporters denounced as a sham.
The 68-year-old, who is also a Belgian citizen with US permanent residency, has been in failing health and his family said he was tortured during his 939 days in detention.
Shortly before midnight Friday, Rusesabagina arrived at the Qatari ambassador’s residence in Kigali, a US official said.
He will likely stay there for “a couple of days” before flying to Qatar, which helped broker his release, and then to the United States, another US official said.
His sentence was commuted by presidential order, Justice Minister Emmanuel Ugirashebuja said in a statement, while 19 co-defendants also saw their sentences commuted.
But the minister warned: “Under Rwandan law, commutation of sentence does not extinguish the underlying conviction.”
US President Joe Biden welcomed Rusesabagina’s release, calling it a “happy outcome”.
“Paul’s family is eager to welcome him back to the United States, and I share their joy at today’s good news,” he said in a statement.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Friday that the United States was “grateful” to Rwanda for the release, while Belgium also said it welcomed the move.
Rwanda praised the role of both the United States and Qatar in resolving the case.
“This is the result of a shared desire to reset (the) US-Rwanda relationship,” Kagame’s press secretary Stephanie Nyombayire tweeted Friday, adding the close relationship between Rwanda and Qatar was “key”.
Talks on a potential release started at the end of 2022 and a breakthrough came last week in discussions between Kagame and Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, a source with knowledge of the negotiations said.
Leave ‘politics behind me’
Rusesabagina was accused of supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel group blamed for attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019 that killed nine people.
He denied any involvement in the attacks, but was a founder of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition group of which the FLN is seen as the armed wing.
He was arrested after a plane en route to Burundi was diverted to Rwanda in August 2020 in what the United Nations has described as an “abduction”.
Rusesabagina had left Rwanda in 1996 and relocated to Belgium with his wife and children.
Nearly a decade later, he became an almost overnight celebrity with the release of the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda” starring Don Cheadle.
The film was inspired by his experience as a hotel manager during the genocide, when his family and hundreds of guests — mainly ethnic Tutsis — took refuge inside the Mille Collines as machete-wielding mobs killed people outside the hotel gates.
Rusesabagina is credited with helping save almost 1,200 lives during the 100-day slaughter that left about 800,000 Rwandans dead.
He went on to become a vocal critic of Kagame, and his tirades against the man who has been Rwanda’s de facto leader since the genocide led him to be treated as an enemy of the state.
In a letter released by the government on Friday but dated October 2022, Rusesabagina pledged to “leave questions regarding Rwandan politics behind me” and spend the rest of his life in the United States in exchange for clemency.
He also voiced “regret for any connection my work with the MRCD may have had to violent actions taken by the FLN”.
‘Means to silence opponents’
Rusesabagina’s case has long been a source of contention between Washington and Kigali, and was raised by Blinken on a visit to Rwanda in August last year.
Last year, Rusesabagina’s family filed a $400-million lawsuit in the United States against Kagame, the Rwandan government and other figures for allegedly abducting and torturing him.
Victoire Ingabire, another Kagame critic who was also jailed on terrorism charges before being released in 2018, said the move aimed to silence Rwanda’s opposition.
“Once a person has been convicted by the Rwandan courts, they are stripped of their rights to engage in politics, and a presidential pardon does not restore those rights,” she told AFP.
In this file photo taken on June 18, 2019, Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) MRCD-UBUMWE chairman Paul Rusesabagina speaks during a press conference about the political and security situation in Rwanda, in Brussels. (Photo: AFP)