Rwanda’s the government has commuted the 25-year sentence on Paul Rusesabaginawho inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda” to save hundreds of his countrymen from genocide but was convicted of terrorism crimes years later in a much-criticized trial.
Government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told The Associated Press on Friday that the presidential order was issued following a request for clemency on behalf of Rusesabagina, a 68-year-old American and Belgian national. Senior US officials said Rusesabagina arrived late Friday at the Qatari ambassador’s home in the Rwandan capital Kigali and was expected to leave the country in the coming days.
US President Joe Biden hailed the news, saying: “Paul’s family is eager to welcome him back to the United States, and I share their joy at today’s good news.” He thanked the governments of Rwanda and Qatar, as well as US government officials who worked “to achieve today’s happy outcome.”
Nineteen others also had their sentences commuted. Under Rwandan law, conversion does not “extinguish” the sentence, Makolo added.
“Rwanda notes the constructive role of the US government in creating the conditions for dialogue on this matter, as well as the facilitation by the State of Qatar,” she said. President Paul Kagame said earlier this month that discussions are underway to resolve the issue.
A spokesman for Qatari Foreign Minister Majid Al-Ansari said in a statement that “the procedure for (Rusesabagina’s) transfer to the State of Qatar is underway and he will then head to the United States. This issue was discussed during meetings that brought together Qatari and Rwandan officials at the highest level.”
The senior US officials, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity under US government rules, declined to comment on Rusesabagina’s current health but said they had made medical and psychological care available.
The case had been described by the US and others as unfair. Rusesabagina disappeared in 2020 during a visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and turned up days later in Rwanda in handcuffs. His family claimed he was kidnapped and taken to Rwanda against his will to stand trial.
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He was convicted of eight charges including membership of a terrorist group, murder and abduction. But the circumstances surrounding his arrest, his limited access to an independent legal team and his reported deteriorating health sparked international concern.
A senior US official said the White House’s aim was to move from Washington condemning the case – and Kigali defending its legal system in response – towards a “constructive sequence to work ourselves mutually, collectively, out of the situation we were in.”
As part of the effort, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, had several phone calls with an unnamed close adviser to Kagame, the official said.
Rusesabagina has claimed that his arrest was in response to his criticism of Kagame for alleged human rights abuses. Kagame’s government has repeatedly denied targeting dissent with arrests and extrajudicial killings.
In a signed letter to Kagame dated October 14 and published on the Ministry of Justice’s website, Rusesabagina wrote that “if I am granted a pardon and released, I fully understand that I will spend the rest of my days in the United States in quiet reflection. . I can assure you by this letter that I have no other personal or political ambitions. I will leave matters of Rwandan politics behind.”
Rusesabagina was credited with sheltering more than 1,000 ethnic Tutsis at the hotel he managed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which over 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus who tried to shelter them were killed. He received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts.
He became a public critic of Kagame and left Rwanda in 1996, living first in Belgium and then the United States
Human Rights Watch said he had been “enforcedly disappeared” and taken to Rwanda. But the court there ruled that he was not kidnapped when he was tricked into boarding a chartered flight. The Rwandan government claimed Rusesabagina had gone to Burundi to coordinate with armed groups based there and in Congo.
Rusesabagina was accused of supporting the armed wing of his opposition political platform, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change. The armed group claimed some responsibility for attacks in 2018 and 2019 in southern Rwanda in which nine Rwandans died.
Rusesabagina testified in the trial that he helped form the armed group to help refugees but said he never supported violence – and tried to distance himself from its deadly attacks.
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Rusesabagina has also said he was gagged and tortured before being imprisoned, but Rwandan authorities denied this. His lawyer, Felix Rudakemwa, claimed that Rusesabagina’s legal papers were confiscated by prison authorities.
After his sentence, Belgium’s then foreign minister, Sophie Wilmes, said that “it must be concluded that Rusesabagina has not received a fair and just trial.”
Last year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Kagame in Rwanda and discussed the case. “We remain convinced that the trial was not fair,” Blinken told reporters.
“It is a relief to know that Paul is reunited with his family, and the U.S. government is grateful to the Rwandan government for making this reunion possible,” Blinken said in a statement Friday, adding, “The United States believes in a Rwanda which is peaceful and prosperous. We affirm the principle of seeking political change in Rwanda and globally through peaceful means.”
When the news broke on Friday, Rusesabagina’s family said in a statement that “we are delighted to hear the news of Paul’s release. The family hopes to be reunited with him soon.”
Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya. Lujain Jo in Doha, Qatar, and Matt Lee and Nomaan Merchant in Washington contributed.
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