'Hotel Rwanda' hero Rusesabagina to be released from prison

 In this file photo taken on October 02, 2020 "Hotel Rwanda" hero Paul Rusesabagina (C) in the pink inmate's uniform arriving at Nyarugenge Court of Justice in Kigali, Rwanda, surrounded by guards of Rwanda Correctional Service (RCS). PHOTO/AFP

What you need to know:

  • Rwanda has commuted the 25-year prison sentence of ailing "Hotel Rwanda" hero Paul Rusesabagina.

Ailing "Hotel Rwanda" hero Paul Rusesabagina was set to be released after the government said on Friday it has commuted a 25-year jail sentence against the fiercely outspoken critic of President Paul Kagame.

The government of Qatar announced that Rusesabagina -- whose case has long been a cause of concern for the West and rights campaigners -- would fly to Doha after he is freed, then the United States.

The 68-year-old's sentence on terrorism charges was "commuted by presidential order", government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told AFP.

"Hotel Rwanda" hero Paul Rusesabagina (R) is handcuffed by a police officer after his pre-trial court session at the Kicukiro Primary court in Kigali, Rwanda on September 14, 2020.PHOTO| FILE| AFP

The sentences of 19 co-defendants who were convicted alongside Rusesabagina in September 2021 have also been commuted, she said, highlighting the role of the United States and Qatar in resolving the case.

But Makolo added: "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."

A government source told AFP on condition of anonymity that Rusesabagina and the other prisoners were expected to be released Saturday.

Rusesabagina was jailed on charges of backing an armed group after a trial his supporters denounced as a sham that was plagued with irregularities. 

The Belgian citizen, who also holds a US Green Card, has now been detained for 939 days, according to the Free Rusesabagina website.

Paul Rusesabagina looks on as he sits with some of his coaccused at the Supreme Court in Kigali on February 17, 2021. AFP/ PHOTO

'No political ambitions'

His family has accused the authorities of torturing him in prison and warned about his deteriorating health, voicing fears he could die behind bars.

"We are pleased to hear the news about Paul's release. The family is hopeful to reunite with him soon," the family said in a statement to AFP.

Rusesabagina, then the manager of a Kigali hotel, is credited with helping to save about 1,200 lives during the 1994 genocide in which about 800,000 people were slaughtered, mainly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus.

His story inspired the Oscar-nominated 2004 movie "Hotel Rwanda" starring US actor Don Cheadle.

He went on become a vocal critic of Kagame but his tirades against a leader he branded a "dictator" led him to be treated as an enemy of the state.

In a letter dated October 2022 seeking a pardon that was released by the government on Friday, Rusesabagina pledged to bow out of political life.

"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.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame. PHOTO/FILE

"The procedure for his (Rusesabagina's) transfer to the state of Qatar is under way; and he will then head to the United States of America," a Qatar foreign ministry spokesperson said.

Rights groups accuse Rwanda -- ruled with an iron fist by Kagame since the end of the genocide -- of cracking down on free speech and opposition.

'Wrongfully detained' 

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.

"Rwanda notes the constructive role of the US government in creating conditions for dialogue on this issue, as well as the facilitation provided by the State of Qatar," Makolo said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. PHOTO/AFP

Rusesabagina's case has long been a source of contention between Washington and Kigali, with Kagame last year insisting the US could not "bully" him into ordering his release.

The United States has said Rusesabagina was "wrongfully detained" after a plane carrying him to Burundi was diverted to Rwanda in August 2020.

Rusesabagina's family said he was tricked into travelling from his US home with the promise of work in Burundi and that he was tortured in custody.

Timothy Longman, a professor of political science and international relations at Boston University, described Friday's announcement as a "pretty standard tactic" for the Rwandan government.

"They put an opponent on trial on trumped up charges and publicly humiliate them. Then either they're acquitted or pardoned. It's quite effective at silencing would-be critics while appearing moderate and reasonable," said Longman, who first met Rusesabagina in the mid-1990s.

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.

"I wish to express my regret for any connection my work with the MRCD may have had to violent actions taken by the FLN," he said in his October letter. 

Rusesabagina's family last year filed a $400 million lawsuit in the United States against Kagame, the Rwandan government and other figures for allegedly abducting and torturing him.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and rights groups earlier raised the case with Rwanda, although Kagame said last year that Washington could not "bully" him into ordering a release.

Paul Rusesabagina was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 by US President George W Bush in 2005 for sheltering people at the hotel he managed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. PHOTO/ AFP