'Hotel Rwanda' hero released from prison after US pressure

Paul Rusesabagina was serving a 25-year sentence after being convicted on terrorism charges

'Hotel Rwanda' hero Paul Rusesabagina was released on March 24. EPA
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Paul Rusesabagina, an outspoken critic of Rwanda's President Paul Kagame’s government, was released on Friday from prison where he had been serving a 25-year sentence on terrorism charges.

The release of Mr Rusesabagina, who was celebrated as a hero for his actions during the genocide that engulfed Rwanda in 1994, came about after the Biden administration prodded Kagame’s government, senior US officials told reporters.

After leaving prison, Mr Rusesabagina was taken to the Qatari Embassy in Kigali, the capital.

The officials, who were granted anonymity to discuss the administration’s role, said National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had made a series of calls leading up to the release.

The US had made it clear to authorities in Kigali that Mr Rusesabagina’s incarceration, which had been condemned by many countries, was a hindrance to relations.

He has denied any wrongdoing.

President Joe Biden applauded Mr Rusesabagina’s release and said in a statement on Friday night that “his family is eager to welcome him back to the United States”.

“I add my gratitude to those across the US government who have worked with the government of Rwanda to achieve today’s happy outcome,” Mr Biden added.

Mr Rusesabagina’s sentence was commuted by presidential order after a request for clemency, government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo said.

Hundreds of other people also had their sentences commuted, including 19 people who were members of the same opposition group to which Mr Rusesabagina belonged, the Justice Ministry said in a statement on Twitter.

“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,” Ms Makolo said. “Under Rwandan law, commutation of sentence does not extinguish the underlying conviction.”

The US government played a “constructive role” in creating conditions for discussions about Rusesabagina’s release, while the state of Qatar provided “facilitation,” she said.

Mr Rusesabagina, 68, had been detained since August 2020, when he “disappeared” after boarding a flight for what he believed was a speaking engagement in Burundi, according to a complaint filed in a Texas federal court. Instead, he was flown to neighbouring Rwanda and arrested on arrival in Kigali.

He was tried on charges that included being a leader of the opposition Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change and its armed wing that carried out attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019, according to Human Rights Watch.

Callixte Nsabimana, a fellow leader of the so-called MCRD/FLN, was among those whose sentences were commuted, Ms Makolo said.

Mr Rusesabagina was portrayed as a saviour in the Oscar-nominated 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda for helping shelter more than 1,200 people from machete-wielding gangs during the genocide that left at least 800,000 people dead.

His family lived in exile in central Texas for several years after leaving Belgium, where he holds citizenship. He repeatedly accused Mr Kagame of political repression and extensive human-rights abuses.

Updated: March 25, 2023, 7:25 AM