Hotel Rwanda hero Paul Rusesabagina freed from prison

Rusesabagina, who was serving a 25-year sentence in Rwanda on ‘terrorism’ charges, was freed late on Friday, US officials said.

"Hotel Rwanda" hero Paul Rusesabagina (C) in the pink inmate's uniform arriving at Nyarugenge Court of Justice in Kigali, Rwanda, on October 2, 2020, surrounded by guards of Rwanda Correctional Service (RCS) [Simon Wohlfahrt / AFP]
Paul Rusesabagina wears a pink inmate's uniform as he is taken to court in 2020 in Kigali [File: Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP]

Paul Rusesabagina, who was portrayed as a hero in the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda and was serving a 25-year sentence in the country on “terrorism” charges, has been freed from prison after having his sentence commuted by presidential order.

Rusesabagina, 68, was accompanied by a United States embassy official as he was moved from prison to the residence of Qatar’s ambassador in the Rwandan capital Kigali late on Friday, according to two senior officials of US President Joe Biden’s administration who briefed reporters in Washington, DC.

The decision to commute Rusesabagina’s sentence followed his request for clemency, government spokesperson Yolande Makolo told Al Jazeera on Friday.

But “no one should be under any illusion about what this means as there is consensus that serious crimes were committed, for which they were convicted,” Makolo said. Under Rwandan law, commutation “does not extinguish the underlying conviction”, she said.

Rusesabagina, an outspoken critic of President Paul Kagame, is expected to be transferred to Qatar’s capital Doha and then to the US, Majid Al-Ansari, spokesperson of Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Al Jazeera on Friday. Rusesabagina has permanent residency rights in the US.

“The procedure for his transfer … is under way,” Al-Ansari said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement welcoming the release, although US officials said there were no promises made to Kigali beyond public recognition of their move.

“It is a relief to know that Paul is rejoining his family, and the US government is grateful to the Rwandan government for making this reunion possible,” Blinken said.

“We also thank the government of Qatar for their valuable assistance that will enable Paul’s return to the United States.”


Brought to Kigali

Rusesabagina was sentenced in 2021 to a 25-year prison term for being part of a group responsible for “terrorist” attacks – charges he denied. He refused to participate in his trial, which he and his supporters called a “sham”.

He had suddenly reappeared in Rwanda in August 2020 after years of living in exile. Rusesabagina had boarded a plane in Dubai, believing it was taking him to Burundi but the flight brought him to Kigali instead.

Human rights organisations as well as members of the US Congress and the European Parliament have described Rusesabagina’s rendition to Rwanda as illegal under international law. The US designated him as “wrongly detained”, partly because of what it called the lack of fair trial guarantees in Rwanda.

Then-Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye later admitted in an interview with Al Jazeera that Rwanda did pay for the plane that transported Rusesabagina.

“Rusesabagina’s release would conclude a case that has highlighted Rwanda’s blatant disregard for international norms when it seeks to target people deemed an enemy of the state – even those far beyond their border,” Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.

Kagame had signalled a possible softening in Rwanda’s approach to Rusesabagina’s case on March 13 when speaking by videolink at the Global Security Forum in Doha.

“There is discussion, there is looking at all possible ways of resolving the issue without compromising the fundamental aspects of that case,” Kagame said at the time. “I think there is going to be a way forward.”

Makolo, the Rwandan government spokesperson, mentioned on Friday the “constructive” role of the US government and Qatar in resolving the case.

Al-Ansari, the Qatari official, said the issue of Rusesabagina’s release “was discussed during meetings that brought together Qatari and Rwandan officials at the highest levels in the context of bridging views”.

Kagame’s press secretary Stephanie Nyombayire said in a statement that Rwanda’s decision resulted from a wish to “reset” ties with the US.

Critically acclaimed film

Rusesabagina became a global celebrity after the release of Hotel Rwanda, which depicted him risking his life to shelter hundreds of people as the manager of a luxury hotel in Kigali during the 1994 genocide, when ethnic Hutus killed more than 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi minority.

US actor Don Cheadle was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Rusesabagina in the 2004 film.

Rusesabagina later used his fame to highlight what he described as human rights violations by the government of Kagame, a Tutsi rebel commander who took power after his forces captured Kigali and halted the genocide.

He was accused of supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN), which was seen as the armed wing of his opposition political platform, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change.

FLN had claimed some responsibility for attacks in 2018 and 2019 in the south of the country in which nine Rwandans died.

Rusesabagina denied any role in the FLN’s crimes.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies