Rwanda said on Friday it has commuted the 25-year jail sentence against ailing “Hotel Rwanda” hero Paul Rusesabagina, a fiercely outspoken critic of President Paul Kagame who has been held behind bars for more than 900 days.
The announcement comes less than two weeks after Kagame said Kigali was looking into resolving Rusesabagina’s case, which has been a cause of concern for the West and global rights groups.
“Paul Rusesabagina and (co-defendant) Callixte Nsabimana have had their prison sentences commuted by presidential order, after consideration of their requests for clemency,” government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told AFP, without disclosing when they would be released.
The sentences of another 18 people convicted of terrorism offences alongside Rusesabagina in September 2021 have also been commuted, she said, highlighting the role of the United States and Qatar in the case.
But Makolo added: “No one should be under any illusion about what this means, as there is consensus that serious crimes were committed, for which they were convicted.”
Rusesabagina, now 68, was jailed after a trial his supporters denounced as a sham that was plagued with irregularities. He has now been detained for 939 days, according to the Free Rusesabagina website.
His family has long warned about Rusesabagina’s deteriorating health and has voiced fears he could die in prison.
A court in May 2022 upheld the sentences against Rusesabagina and most of his 20 co-defendants who were jailed for between three and 20 years for backing an armed group.
Rusesabagina was the manager of a Kigali hotel and is credited with helping to save about 1,200 lives during the 1994 genocide in which about 800,000 people were slaughtered, mainly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus.
Rusesabagina, whose story inspired the Oscar-nominated 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda” starring US actor Don Cheadle, became a vocal critic of Kagame, founding his own party.
He emerged as a staunch government critic whose tirades against Kagame led him to be treated as an enemy of the state.
Rights groups accuse Rwanda — ruled with an iron fist by Kagame since the end of the genocide — of cracking down on free speech and opposition.
Speaking via videolink at the Global Security Forum in the Qatari capital Doha on March 13, Kagame had signalled a possible softening in Rwanda’s approach on Rusesabagina’s case.
“There is discussion, there is looking at all possible ways of resolving the issue without compromising the fundamental aspects of that case. I think there is going to be a way forward,” he said at the time.
Makolo said on Friday that 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”.
Last year, the United States said Rusesabagina — who holds Belgian citizenship and a US Green Card — was “wrongfully detained” after a plane carrying him to Burundi was diverted to Rwanda in August 2020.
Also in 2022, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion concluding that Rusesabagina had been “abducted” and that his detention was “arbitrary”.
Rusesabagina’s family said he was tricked into travelling from his US home with the promise of work in Burundi and that he has been tortured while in detention.
He was accused of supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel group which is blamed for attacks inside Rwanda in 2018 and 2019 that killed nine people.
Rusesabagina 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.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and rights groups have raised the case with Rwanda, although Kagame said last year that the United States could not “bully” him into ordering a release.
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.
In 2005, Rusesabagina received the highest US civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.