A fierce opponent of President Paul Kagame, Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, was released on Friday after more than 900 days behind bars and a government announcement commuting his 25-year sentence for "terrorism".
Paul Rusesabagina, who has Belgian nationality and was a permanent resident of the United States, was handed over to the Qatari ambassador before his return to the United States, according to a US official. His sentence was commuted by presidential decree, Justice Minister Emmanuel Ugirashebuja said in a statement, as did 19 co-defendants. But the Minister warned that "commuting the sentence does not nullify the conviction".
President Joe Biden thanked the Rwandan and Qatari governments and expressed his "joy". Belgium welcomed "the decision of the Rwandan government". "We hope he will be reunited with his family soon," Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib said in a statement.
The conviction of Paul Rusesabagina in September 2021 had drawn international and rights defenders disapproval. His sentence was commuted "by presidential order, after consideration of their requests for clemency", Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told AFP on Friday. According to a government source who requested anonymity, the other detainees should be released on Saturday.
This case has long been a source of contention between Kigali and Washington. In May 2022, Washington deemed that Paul Rusesabagina was "unjustly detained" by Rwandan justice. Paul Kagame retorted that the United States could not "bully" him into releasing him.
The move "is the result of a shared desire to reset U.S.-Rwanda relations," the president's press secretary, Stephanie Nyombayire, said on Twitter.
• A commutation does not negate the conviction and can be revoked should crimes be repeated •The close relationship between Rwanda
Talks on a release of the opponent had started at the end of 2022 and a breakthrough occurred last week during discussions between President Kagame and the Emir of Qatar, said a source familiar with the matter. Supporters of the 68-year-old opponent believe his trial was a sham marred by irregularities. And his family had alerted to his declining state of health. Paul Rusesabagina was detained for 939 days, according to the Free Rusesabagina website.
He was made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda, released in 2004, which tells how this moderate Hutu who ran the Hotel des Mille Collines in the Rwandan capital saved more than 1,000 people during the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994. Opponent since more than 20 years to Paul Kagame, whom he accused of authoritarianism and fueling anti-Hutu sentiment, Paul Rusesabagina used his Hollywood fame to give a global echo to his positions.
His tirades against Paul Kagame earned him treatment as an enemy of the state. In a letter dated October 2022 published Friday by the government, he assured that he would henceforth stay away from political life.
Human rights defenders accuse Rwanda, ruled with an iron fist by Paul Kagame since the end of the 1994 genocide, of suppressing freedom of expression and the opposition.
Paul Rusesabagina had lived in exile in the United States and Belgium since 1996, before being arrested in Kigali in 2020 in murky circumstances when he got off a plane he thought was bound for Burundi.
"His release would conclude a case that underscored Rwanda's blatant disregard for international standards," Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director for Human Rights Watch, told AFP earlier in the day.
Victoire Ingabire, also a critic of Kagame, said the move was aimed at silencing the Rwandan opposition. "Once a person has been convicted by Rwandan courts, they are deprived of their right to engage in politics, and a presidential pardon does not restore that right," she told AFP.
The opponent was tried from February to July 2021 on nine counts, including that of "terrorism", for attacks carried out by the FLN, an organization classified as terrorist by Kigali, which killed nine people in 2018 and 2019.
Paul Rusesabagina admitted to having participated in the founding in 2017 of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), of which the FLN is considered the armed wing, but he has always denied any involvement in the attacks.