Rwandan-born Belgian national Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film 'Hotel Rwanda' and became a fierce opponent of President Paul Kagame, was released from prison on Friday after the government announced that it had commuted his 25-year “terrorism” sentence.
He was handed over to the Qatari Ambassador in Kigali pending his return to the United States, a US official said.
The Rwandan opposition figure, who holds Belgian citizenship and is a permanent resident of the United States, "is at the residence of the Qatari ambassador," the official said.
Washington "grateful" to Kigali for Rusesabagina's release
US diplomatic chief Antony Blinken said Washington was "grateful" to Rwanda for releasing him.
Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo had told US news agency AP earlier on Friday that Mr. Rusesabagina was expected to be released on Saturday, along with 18 of his co-accused jailed following the same trial.
Rusesabagina’s conviction in September 2021 had sparked international condemnation, including from Belgium - which said it was “very regrettable that some of his rights to defence were not fully respected” – and from rights activists.
Sentences commuted by presidential decree
In May 2022, Washington said he was being “unjustly detained” by Rwandan justice. Kagame had retorted that the United States could not “intimidate” him into releasing the jailed politician.
“Paul Rusesabagina and (his co-accused) Callixte Nsabimana have had their prison sentences commuted by presidential order, after consideration of their petitions for clemency,” Ms. Makolo told French news agency AFP on Friday.
Eighteen others convicted on terrorism charges also had their sentences commuted, she added.
US played supporting role, Qatar facilitated
Makolo said Rwanda “notes the constructive role of the US government in setting 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 illusion about what this means, because there is a consensus that serious crimes were committed, for which they were convicted. Under Rwandan law, commuting a sentence does not erase the conviction."
The Qatar government said earlier on Friday that the opposition figure would be able to go to Qatar once he was released. “The procedure for his transfer to Qatar is underway,” a Qatari foreign ministry spokesman said. “He will then go to the United States,” he added.
Supporters believe trial was a sham
The spokesman's comments came one day after a visit to Doha by President Paul Kagame, and less than two weeks after an announcement by the Rwandan president that “discussions” were underway regarding Mr. Rusesabagina’s imprisonment.
The opposition politician’s supporters believe his trial was a sham marked by irregularities, while his family had warned of the 68-year-old’s declining health.
A court had upheld his conviction in May 2022, along with those of most of his 20 co-accused, who received sentences of three to 20 years in prison. Rusesabagina was held for 939 days, according to the Free Rusesabagina website.
Using 'Hotel Rwanda' fame to give his criticism global resonance
Paul Rusesabagina was made famous by the 2004 film 'Hotel Rwanda,' which tells how ae moderate Hutu who ran Hotel des Mille Collines in the Rwandan capital saved more than 1,000 people during the 1994 Tutsi genocide.
An opponent for more than 20 years of Paul Kagame, whom he has accused of authoritarianism and stoking anti-Hutu sentiment, Rusesabagina has used his Hollywood fame to give his positions global resonance.
His tirades against Mr. Kagame have earned him treatment as an enemy of the state.
Arrested in 2020 in murky circumstances
Human rights advocates accuse Rwanda – ruled with an iron fist by Kagame since the end of the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were killed — of repressing free speech and opposition.
Rusesabagina had been living in exile in the United States and Belgium since 1996, before he was arrested in Kigali in 2020 in murky circumstances as he got off a plane he thought was bound for Burundi.
His family and his Belgian lawyer, Vincent Lurquin, denounced what they said was a “kidnapping” organised by the Rwandan authorities, saying he had been lured by the promise of a job in Burundi.
HRW denounces 'disregard for international norms'
The Central Africa director of the non-governmental Human Rights Watch, Lewis Mudge, said his release would conclude a case that has "highlighted Rwanda's blatant disregard for international norms."
The opposition activist was on trial from February to July 2021 on nine charges, including “terrorism,” for attacks by the FLN, an organisation classified as a terrorist by Kigali, that killed nine people in 2018 and 2019.
Rusesabagina has admitted to helping found the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change - of which the FLN is considered the armed wing - in 2017, but has always denied any involvement in the attacks.