Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film "Hotel Rwanda" and is a fierce opponent of President Paul Kagame, was released on Friday after the government announced it had commuted his 25-year sentence for "terrorism".
Paul Rusesabagina, who has Belgian citizenship and resides permanently in the United States, was handed over to the Qatari ambassador before his return to the United States, an American official announced.
President Joe Biden thanked the Rwandan and Qatari governments "for making this reunion possible", expressing his "joy".
Belgium also hailed "the Rwandan government's decision to grant Paul Rusesabagina a reduced sentence". "We hope that he will soon be reunited with his family," Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib said in a statement.
The conviction of Mr. Rusesabagina in September 2021 had drawn international reprobation and from rights defenders.
"Paul Rusesabagina and (his co-defendant) Callixte Nsabimana have had their prison sentences commuted by presidential order, after consideration of their requests for clemency," Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told AFP.
Eighteen other people convicted of terrorism also had their sentences commuted, she added. According to a government source who requested anonymity, the other detainees should be released on Saturday.
Ms. Makolo said that Rwanda "notes the constructive role of the US government in creating the conditions for dialogue on this issue, as well as the facilitation provided by Qatar".
But she added that 'no one should be under any illusions about what that means because there is a consensus that serious crimes have been committed, for which they have been convicted.'
This case has long been a source of contention between Kigali and Washington. In May 2022, Washington considered that Mr. Rusesabagina was "unjustly detained" by Rwandan justice. Mr. Kagame had retorted that the United States could not "intimidate" him to force him to release him.
This decision "is the result of a shared desire to reset the United States / Rwanda relations", declared on Twitter the president's press secretary, Stephanie Nyombayire.
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.
President Kagame had announced during a visit to Qatar two weeks ago that "discussions" were underway regarding Mr Rusesabagina's imprisonment.
Supporters of the 68-year-old opponent believe that his trial was a sham marked by irregularities. And his family had alerted to his declining state of health.
Mr. Rusesabagina was detained for 939 days, according to the website Free Rusesabagina (Free Rusesabagina).
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 Tutsi in 1994.
Opposing Paul Kagame for more than 20 years, whom he accused of authoritarianism and fueling anti-Hutu sentiment, Mr. Rusesabagina has used his Hollywood fame to give a global echo to his positions.
His tirades against Mr. Kagame earned him treatment as an enemy of the state.
In a letter dated October 2022 published by the government on Friday, he assured that he would henceforth stay away from political life.
"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 behind me questions concerning Rwandan politics", writes- he.
Human rights defenders accuse Rwanda -- ruled with an iron fist by Mr. Kagame since the end of the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people were killed -- of suppressing freedom of expression and the opposition.
Mr. Rusesabagina had lived since 1996 in exile in the United States and Belgium, before being arrested in Kigali in 2020 in troubled 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.
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.
25/03/2023 01:47:05 - Kigali (AFP) © 2023 AFP