An ailing Paul Rusesabagina, the polarising hero of the hit movie "Hotel Rwanda", is set to be released after the government said Friday it had commuted a 25-year jail sentence against the outspoken critic of President Paul Kagame.
The government of Qatar announced that Rusesabagina -- whose case has been a cause of concern for the West and rights campaigners -- would fly to Doha after he was freed, then the United States.
The 68-year-old's sentence on terrorism charges was "commuted by presidential order", government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told AFP.
The sentences of 19 co-defendants convicted alongside Rusesabagina in September 2021 have also been commuted.
But Makolo added: "Under Rwandan law, commutation of sentence does not extinguish the underlying conviction."
A government source told AFP on condition of anonymity that Rusesabagina and the other prisoners were expected to be released Saturday.
Rusesabagina was jailed on charges of backing an armed group after a trial his supporters denounced as a sham that was plagued with irregularities.
Rwanda highlighted the role of both the United States and Qatar in resolving the case, long a bone of contention with Washington, which has also voiced concerns about Rwanda's alleged backing of rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"This is the result of a shared desire to reset US-Rwanda relationship," Kagame's press secretary Stephanie Nyombayire said on Twitter, adding that the close relationship between Rwanda and Qatar was a "key" factor.
Friday's announcement came a day after Kagame left Qatar, where he had signalled his government was looking at ways of resolving the case.
Talks on a potential release started at the end of 2022, and a breakthrough came last week in discussions between Kagame and Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, said a source with knowledge of the negotiations.
'No political ambitions'
The Belgian citizen, who also holds a US Green Card, has now been detained for 939 days, according to the Free Rusesabagina website.
His family has accused the authorities of torturing him in prison and warned about his deteriorating health, voicing fears he could die behind bars.
"We are pleased to hear the news about Paul's release. The family is hopeful to reunite with him soon," the family said in a statement to AFP.
Rusesabagina's wife Taciana and daughter Carine Kanimba campaigned for his release. By Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD (AFP)
Rusesabagina, then the manager of a Kigali hotel, is credited with having helped to save about 1,200 lives during the 1994 genocide in which about 800,000 people were slaughtered, mainly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus.
His story inspired the Oscar-nominated 2004 movie "Hotel Rwanda" starring US actor Don Cheadle.
He went on become a vocal critic of Kagame, but his tirades against a leader he branded a "dictator" led him to be treated as an enemy of the state.
In a letter dated October 2022 seeking a pardon that was released by the government on Friday, Rusesabagina pledged to bow out of political life.
"I understand fully that I will spend the remainder of my days in the United States in quiet reflection. I can assure you through this letter that I hold no personal or political ambitions otherwise. I will leave questions regarding Rwandan politics behind me."
Kagame, whose country has a grim record on human rights, last year insisted the US could not "bully" him into ordering his release.
Washington has said Rusesabagina was "wrongfully detained" after a plane carrying him to Burundi was diverted to Rwanda in August 2020.
Rusesabagina's family said he was tricked into travelling from his US home with the promise of work in Burundi and that he was tortured in custody.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the case with Rwanda, and a senior US official said his visit to Kigali in August "played a key role in getting us closer to Paul's eventual release."
"He raised directly in his engagements with President Kagame and discussed Paul's case at length. They spoke a great deal about the road map to Paul's eventual release," the official said, speaking anonymously.
Timothy Longman, a professor of political science and international relations at Boston University, described Friday's announcement as a "pretty standard tactic" for the Rwandan government.
Then US president George W. Bush awarded Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. By MANDEL NGAN (AFP/File)
"They put an opponent on trial on trumped-up charges and publicly humiliate them. Then either they're acquitted or pardoned. It's quite effective at silencing would-be critics while appearing moderate and reasonable," said Longman, who first met Rusesabagina in the mid-1990s.
Rusesabagina was accused of supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel group blamed for attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019 that killed nine people.
He denied any involvement in the attacks, but was a founder of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition group of which the FLN is seen as the armed wing.
"I wish to express my regret for any connection my work with the MRCD may have had to violent actions taken by the FLN," he said in his October letter.
Rusesabagina's family last year filed a $400 million lawsuit in the United States against Kagame, the Rwandan government and other figures for allegedly abducting and torturing him.