Paul Rusesabagina, who was portrayed as a hero in the Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda” and is serving a 25-year sentence on terrorism charges, will be released on Saturday after his term was commuted, Rwanda’s government spokesperson said on Friday.
The announcement of his release follows intense diplomacy by the United States, where Rusesabagina has permanent residency rights. Historically close ties between the two countries have been strained over the case, and over Rwanda’s alleged meddling in Democratic Republic of Congo.
“This is the result of a shared desire to reset US-Rwanda relationship,” Stephanie Nyombayire, spokesperson of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, wrote on Twitter.
Rusesabagina was sentenced in Sept. 2021 over his ties to an organization opposed to Kagame’s rule. He denied all the charges and refused to take part in the trial that he and his supporters called a political sham.
Washington designated him as “wrongly detained”, partly because of what it called the lack of fair trial guarantees.
The former hotelier’s release may help to ease tensions with the US, which has repeatedly called on Rwanda to cease its support of the M23 armed group and to withdraw its troops from neighbouring Congo. Rwanda denies any involvement in Congo.
“I commend US and Rwandan officials for working together on Mr. Rusesabagina’s release and addressing the issues surrounding his case, including those related to justice and political violence,” ranking member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch said in a statement.
Rusesabagina is expected to be released on Saturday alongside 19 others, whose sentences were likewise commuted by presidential order after requests for clemency, Rwanda’s government spokesperson Yolande Makolo told Reuters.
“Under Rwandan law, commutation of sentence does not extinguish the underlying conviction,” Makolo said.
“Rwanda notes the constructive role of the US government in creating conditions for dialogue on this issue, as well as the facilitation provided by the State of Qatar.”
Rusesabagina will initially be flown to Doha, where his family may join him, and then on to the United States, the online media platform Semafor reported.
“If any individual benefiting from early release repeats offences of a similar nature, the commutation can be revoked and the remainder of the prison sentence will be served,” Rwanda’s justice ministry said.
Rusesabagina, a vocal critic of Kagame, acknowledged having a leadership role in an opposition group, the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), but denied responsibility for attacks carried out on Rwanda by its armed wing, the Forces for National Liberation (FLN).
The trial judges said the two wings of the group were indistinguishable.
“I regret not taking more care to ensure that members of the MRCD coalition fully adhered to the principles of non violence,” Rusesabagina wrote in an October 14 letter to Kagame, which was released by the justice ministry.
He wrote that if he was pardoned and freed, he would spend the rest of his days in the US “in quiet reflection.”
Callixte Nsabimana, known by his alias Sankara, an FLN spokesman who was convicted by a Rwandan court of terrorism, murder and hostage-taking in 2019, will be among those who will be released, the spokesperson said.
In a handwritten letter to Kagame released by the justice ministry, Nsabimana said he had apologised to all Rwandans and especially those affected by attacks by FLN fighters.