Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda,” was released from prison in Rwanda after his prison sentence was commuted Friday by the country’s President Paul Kagame.
US senior administration officials told reporters Friday that Rusesabagina, who is a US legal permanent resident, had been transferred to the residence of the Qatari ambassador in Kigali.
“He will be spending a limited period of time hosted by the Qataris,” likely a couple of days, one official said, and then will travel to Doha and on to the United States.
Rusesabagina, an outspoken critic of President Paul Kagame, is best known for saving hundreds of Rwandans during the country’s genocide by sheltering them in the hotel he managed.
He was arrested by Rwandan authorities while he was traveling internationally in 2020 in what his family has claimed was a kidnapping.
Rusesabagina was found guilty on terrorism-related charges in September 2021 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The commutation of his sentence comes after he asked Kagame for a pardon in an October 2022 letter.
“Commutation of sentence does not extinguish the underlying conviction,” said government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo on Friday.
Rusesabagina, who is a dual Rwandan and Belgian citizen, was slated to be released along with 19 other people that had been convicted alongside him, Makolo told CNN.
“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,” she added.
In a statement Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed Rusesabagina’s release.
“It is a relief to know that Paul is rejoining his family, and the US Government is grateful to the Rwandan Government for making this reunion possible. We also thank the Government of Qatar for their valuable assistance that will enable Paul’s return to the United States,” Blinken said.
A spokesperson for his family said they “are pleased to hear the news about Paul’s release.”
“The family is hopeful to reunite with him soon,” the spokesperson told CNN earlier Friday.
At his trial in 2021, Rusesabagina was found guilty of being part of a terror group called MRCD-FLN. Two 2018 attacks in which nine people died were a particular focus, according to a government statement.
However the Clooney Foundation for Justice described the verdict as a “show trial,” and claimed that Rusesabagina’s conviction lacked sufficient guarantees of fairness “required by international and African standards.”
He was designated as wrongfully detained by the US government.
Blinken trip to Rwanda ‘played a key role’
One of the senior US officials said “there was no particular concession made by us as a government here” that led to Rusesabagina’s release.
Rather, there was “a sequence of steps that were worked out involving the Rwandan government, US government and of course Paul himself,” the official said.
“It took months to reach that sequence in a manner agreeable to all those involved,” they said.
Multiple US officials said that Blinken’s trip to Rwanda “played a key role” in eventually resolving Rusesabagina’s case.
In his engagements with Kagame he “discussed Paul’s case at length,” a US official said, and “they spoke a great deal about the road map to Paul’s eventual release.”
“The State Department through SPEHA (the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs), and other members of the interagency have been working to keep it on track since the Secretary’s visit,” that US official said.
The first senior official also said that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan “took a personal hand in trying to craft a way forward on this issue.”
“In particular, he began quiet diplomacy with a close advisor to the President,” both by phone and in person, the official said.
“Through these discussions, the parameters of a mutually acceptable arrangement emerged that the Rwandans would move towards Paul’s release and in parallel, the US government would indicate how much we welcome the developments, as we continue to do,” the official said.
An ‘irritant’ to the US-Rwanda relationship
Both the first senior official and a congressional aide familiar with the case said that Rusesabagina’s detention had become an “irritant” in the US-Rwandan relationship, and congressional interlocutors tried to make it clear to Rwandan officials both in Washington, DC and Kigali that such an “irritant” would not go away until it was resolved.
The Rwandan government wanted the US to acknowledge that there was a legal process that occurred and that process resulted in Rusesabagina being convicted, the aide said.
The resolution got closer once conversations shifted away from a discussion of guilt or innocence and more toward trying to solve the issue – a strategy illustrated by a letter written by Rusesabagina to Kagame in October 2022 to request a pardon, which the congressional aide said was “carefully discussed.”
In that letter – released by the Ministry of Justice Friday – Rusesabagina said he wished to express “regret for any connection (his) work with the MRCD may have had to violent actions taken by the FLN.”
“As a former head of MRCD, I regret not taking more care to ensure that the MRCD coalition fully adhered to the principles of non-violence in which I fully and deeply believe, and have always ascribed,” Rusesabagina wrote.
“If I am granted a pardon and released, I understand fully that I will spend the remainder of my days in the United States in quiet reflection,” he continued. “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.”
The publication of this letter expressing contrition, and the fact that Rwanda commuted his sentence, rather than pardoning him, allowed the Rwandan government to stand by their assertion of Rusesabagina’s guilt.
“They continue to make clear that he’s a convicted terrorist,” the aide said.
The aide also said there was immense congressional pressure on both the Rwandan government and the Biden administration on the matter, which was a complex one. Rusesabagina is a legal permanent resident of the US but not a citizen, and he did not get designated as wrongfully detained until within the last year.
A second US senior administration official said that “there was some constructive participation by members and congressional staff to encourage both parties to use the existing clemency process as part of Rwandan law to help resolve the tensions between Paul and the government of Rwanda.”
American lawmakers who were invested in the case on Friday welcomed the news about Rusesabagina’s commuted sentence and expected release.
“Paul Rusesabagina is a hero, and his unjust detention was a stain on Rwanda’s progress toward a peaceful and stable future. Together with his family, friends, and supporters around the world, I am overjoyed to hear the news of his impending release and look forward to his safe return,” Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro said in a statement.
“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,” Republican Sen. Jim Risch said. “I look forward to seeing Mr. Rusesabagina return to his family, and encourage the U.S. and Rwandan governments to continue working to advance our bilateral relationship.”
This aide downplayed Qatar’s role in securing the commutation, saying that there may have been conversations between Rwandan and Qatari officials but alleged they had “no impact” on the case.