Paul Rusesabagina, a “Hotel Rwanda” hero, is released from prison
Paul Rusesabagina, a vehement opponent of the Rwandan regime whose attempts to save people during the 1994 genocide served as the inspiration for the Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda,” has been released from prison after more than 900 days in custody.
Rusesabagina’s 25-year sentence for terrorism-related offenses was commuted by the Kigali government, and he was released late on Friday out of the spotlight and will go back to the United States.
Due to his detention, the world’s attention was drawn to Rwanda’s history of stifling political dissent and free expression under President Paul Kagame.
After a trial that his supporters criticized as being a fraud, Rusesabagina was found guilty in September 2021 of supporting an armed rebel group.
The 68-year-old, who is also a citizen of Belgium and has permanent citizenship in the United States, has deteriorating health, and according to his family, was tortured during his 939 days of detention.
A US official reported that Rusesabagina arrived at the residence of the Qatari envoy in Kigali just before midnight on Friday.
Another US official predicted that he would stay there for “a few days” before traveling to Qatar, which assisted in arranging his release, and eventually the US.
According to a statement from Justice Minister Emmanuel Ugirashebuja, his sentence was mitigated by presidential order, along with the sentences of 19 other co-defendants.
“Under Rwandan law, commutation of sentence does not extinguish the underlying conviction,” the ministry cautioned.
Rusesabagina’s release was applauded by US President Joe Biden, who described it as a “happy outcome.”
In a statement, he added, “Paul’s family is eager to welcome him back to the United States, and I share their joy at today’s good news.”
Belgium and the United States both expressed gratitude for the release in statements on Friday, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Rwanda appreciated Qatar’s and the United States’ contributions to the case’s resolution.
Stephanie Nyombayire, Kagame’s press secretary, tweeted on Friday, “This is the result of a shared desire to reset (the) US-Rwanda relationship.” She added that the close ties between Rwanda and Qatar were “key.”
A breakthrough was made last week in discussions between Kagame and Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations. Discussions on a potential release began around the end of 2022.
Put politics behind you.
Rusesabagina was charged with aiding the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel organization allegedly responsible for nine-death attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019.
He was a founder of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition party, of which the FLN is thought to be the armed wing, though he denied any role in the attacks.
In August 2020, he was detained when a plane bound for Burundi was redirected to Rwanda in what the UN called a “abduction.”
Rusesabagina, his wife, and their children moved from Rwanda to Belgium in 1996.
He rose to fame almost immediately afterward with the 2004 release of the Don Cheadle-starring movie “Hotel Rwanda.”
His experiences as a hotel manager during the genocide, when his family and hundreds of guests, mostly of ethnic Tutsi descent, sought safety within the Mille Collines as machete-wielding mobs slaughtered individuals outside the hotel gates, served as the inspiration for the movie.
Almost 1,200 lives were saved thanks to Rusesabagina during the 100-day massacre that claimed roughly 800,000 Rwandan lives.
As a result of his outbursts against Kagame, who has served as Rwanda’s de facto leader ever since the genocide, he later developed a reputation as a loud opponent of the government.
Rusesabagina promised to “leave questions regarding Rwandan politics behind me” and spend the remainder of his life in the United States in a letter that was made public by the government on Friday but was really dated in October 2022.
He expressed regret for “any connection” between his work with the MRCD and the FLN’s violent actions.
“Means to silence adversaries”
When Blinken visited Rwanda in August of last year, he brought up the matter of Rusesabagina, which has long been a point of friction between Washington and Kigali.
Rusesabagina’s family sued Kagame, the Rwandan government, and other parties for allegedly kidnapping and torturing him in a $400 million lawsuit last year in the United States.
The move, according to Victoire Ingabire, another critic of Kagame who was imprisoned on terrorism-related charges before being freed in 2018.
“A person’s right to participate in politics is taken away from them once they have been found guilty by Rwandan courts, and a presidential pardon does not restore those rights,” she told AFP.