‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero Paul Rusesabagina released from prison

Rwandan government critic Paul Rusesabagina, whose efforts to save people during the 1994 genocide were portrayed in hit Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda”, has been freed from prison after more than 900 days behind bars.

Rusesabagina was released last night and will return to the US after the Kigali government commuted his 25-year sentence on terrorism charges.

His detention drew criticism from Western and right-wing groups, highlighting Rwanda’s reputation for cracking down on political dissent and free speech under President Paul Kagame.

Rusesabagina was detained after it was revealed that he supported an armed rebel group during a trial that his supporters accused of fraud.

The 68-year-old man was in poor health and his family said he was tortured for 939 days while in custody.

His sentence was “commuted by presidential order”, as were the prison terms of 19 co-defendants convicted alongside him, government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told AFP.

Shortly before midnight on Friday, Mr. 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 where he has permanent residency, another US official said.

Rwanda praised the role of both the United States and Qatar in resolving the case, after Kagame held talks in Doha earlier this month.

“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”.

US President Joe Biden welcomed Mr. 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.

Mr Rusesabagina, also a Belgian citizen, is accused of supporting the rebel National Liberation Front (FLN), which is accused of attacks that killed nine people in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019.

He denied involvement in the attack, but was a founder of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition group in which the FLN is the armed wing.

He was arrested in August 2020 after a flight bound for Burundi was diverted to Rwanda in what the United Nations described as “abduction”.

Mr. Rusesabagina left Rwanda in 1996 and moved to Belgium with his wife and children.

Nearly a decade later, he became a celebrity virtually overnight with the release of Hotel Rwanda (2004), starring Don Cheadle.

The film was inspired by his experience as a hotel manager during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. His family and hundreds of guests (mostly Tutsis, like his wife) took refuge in Mille Collines while a mob armed with machetes killed people outside the hotel.

He is credited with killing nearly 800,000 Rwandans and saving nearly 1,200 lives during a 100-day genocide that ended with a new Tutsi-dominated government coming to power.

He became a harsh critic of Kagame, and his rhetoric about the leader led to him being treated as an enemy of the state.

In a government letter released on Friday, October 2022, Mr. Rusesabagina promised to retire from political life in exchange for a pardon.

“I understand fully that I will spend the remainder of my days in the United States in quiet reflection. I can assure you through this letter that I hold no personal or political ambitions otherwise. I will leave questions regarding Rwandan politics behind me.”

Friday’s announcement came a day after Kagame left close ally Qatar, where he had signalled his government was looking at ways of resolving the case.

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.

Rusesabagina’s case has long been a source of contention between Washington and Kigali, and it was raised by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on a visit to Rwanda in August last year.

The United States has said Mr Rusesabagina was “wrongfully detained” but Kagame last year insisted the United States could not “bully” him into ordering his release.

Mr Blinken said in a statement on Friday that the United States was “grateful” to Rwanda for the release.

Last year, Mr 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 pardoned in 2018, said the move aims 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.

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