Rwandan government critic Paul Rusesabagina's prison sentence commuted

Rwanda  Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters
© Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters

Rwandan government critic Paul Rusesabagina has been freed from prison after more than 900 days behind bars. The decision to commute his 25 year sentence on terrorism charges comes after extensive negotiations between Rwanda and close ally Qatar.

Rusesabagina was released late Friday and will spend a "few days" at the Qatar embassy in Kigali before returning to the United States where he has permanent residency.

His sentence was "commuted by presidential order", as were the prison terms of 19 co-defendants convicted alongside him, Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told French news agency AFP.

Friday's announcement came a day after Rwandan President Paul Kagame left close ally 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, a source close to the negotiations said.

In a letter released by the government on Friday but dated October 2022, Rusesabagina pledged to bow out of political life in exchange for a pardon.

Happy outcome

Rusesabagina was jailed after he was found to have backed the armed rebel group National Liberation Front (FLN) in a trial that his supporters denounced as a sham.

His detention sparked criticism in the West and among rights groups, and highlighted Rwanda's record of crushing political dissent and free speech under President Kagame.

The case has long been a source of contention between Washington and Kigali, with the United States saying Rusesabagina had been "wrongfully detained".

Kagame insisted the United States could not "bully" him into ordering his release.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who raised the issue on a visit to Rwanda in August last year said on Friday that his country was "grateful" to Rwanda for the release.

US President Joe Biden called it a "happy outcome".

Kagame's press secretary Stephanie Nyombayire added the close relationship between Rwanda and Qatar was "key".

From hero to prisoner

Rusesabagina had left Rwanda in 1996 and relocated to Belgium with his wife and children.

Nearly a decade later, he became an almost overnight celebrity with the release of the 2004 film "Hotel Rwanda" starring Don Cheadle.

The film was inspired by his experience as a hotel manager during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when his family and hundreds of guests -- mainly ethnic Tutsis like his wife -- took refuge inside the Mille Collines as machete-wielding mobs killed people outside the hotel gates.

Rusesabagina is credited with helping save almost 1,200 lives during the 100-day slaughter that left about 800,000 Rwandans dead and ended with a new Tutsi-dominated government.

He went on to become a vocal critic of Kagame, and his tirades against the leader led him to be treated as an enemy of the state.

In August 2020, he was arrested after a plane en route to Burundi was diverted to Rwanda in an incident the United Nations has described as an "abduction".

Last year, Rusesabagina's family filed a $400 million lawsuit in the United States against Kagame, the Rwandan government and other figures.

The 68-year-old has been in failing health and his family said he was tortured during his 939 days in detention.

(with AFP)