Paul Rusesabagina, whose story inspired a Hollywood movie, was kidnapped by the Rwandan government and jailed. In a deal brokered by the U.S. and Qatar, he is to be set free.
Paul Rusesabagina, whose heroism in the face of genocide was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie “Hotel Rwanda,” will be released from prison on Saturday after being captured, held and tried by the Rwandan government in a case that drew international condemnation, the Rwandan government announced on Friday.
His release will end two and a half years in captivity for Mr. Rusesabagina, 68, who had moved to the United States and become a staunch detractor of Rwanda’s longtime leader, Paul Kagame.
Mr. Rusesabagina’s enforced disappearance and trial drew widespread criticism of Mr. Kagame, whose achievements in developing his country since the genocide in 1994 have at times been overshadowed by his autocratic rule, dismal human rights record and destabilizing military intervention in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mr. Rusesabagina’s release offers the Rwandan government the opportunity to deflect attention from those issues at a time when Rwanda, a tiny nation in central Africa, is offering to house migrants unwanted by Britain, Denmark and other countries.
Supporters were jubilant at the news of Mr. Rusesabagina’s impending release on Friday, but they were also reluctant to say too much for fear of jeopardizing his departure from Rwanda. His family said that they were “hopeful to reunite with him soon,” after years of campaigning for his release.
Don Cheadle, the actor who portrayed Mr. Rusesabagina in “Hotel Rwanda” and who later became an advocate for his release, called the development “unbelievable news.” Mr. Cheadle said he had just gotten off the phone with one of Mr. Rusesabagina’s daughters. “We cheered and she was doing back flips, of course.”
In August 2020, Mr. Rusesabagina was duped into traveling overseas on what he thought was a speaking trip, kidnapped by the Rwandan government, tortured and put on trial. He was accused of belonging to an opposition political coalition whose armed wing had carried out violent attacks on civilians inside Rwanda.
He was convicted on eight charges, including murder, kidnapping and belonging to a terrorist group, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He pleaded not guilty to all the charges and denied the accusations the Rwandan government leveled against him.
Mr. Rusesabagina will be released alongside 19 others with whom he was convicted on terrorism-related offenses, said Yolande Makolo, spokeswoman for the Rwandan government, in a written text message. She said that even though their prison sentences had been commuted, under Rwandan law, that does not “extinguish the underlying conviction.”
Ms. Makolo said in the text message, “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.”
The release follows several months of negotiations involving the White House, the Rwandan government, the government of Qatar and Mr. Rusesabagina’s family.
Mr. Rusesabagina is expected to fly to the Qatari capital, Doha, on Saturday and then on to the United States, according to an official informed of the negotiations, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
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The official said that the talks started at the end of 2022 and continued during a meeting last week between Mr. Kagame and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, at the Global Security Forum in Doha.
Mr. Rusesabagina’s release will come just weeks before the 29th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, which continued for 100 days and killed as many as one million people. He was lauded for his role in sheltering and saving 1,268 people at the luxury hotel that he managed in central Kigali, the Rwandan capital.
That story became the genesis for the 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda” and brought him global recognition and multiple awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 from President George W. Bush.
The news of Mr. Rusesabagina’s release was first reported by the news website Semafor and by Reuters. Mr. Kagame had hinted at the move in early March, saying there were discussions “looking at all possible ways of resolving” the issue.
Mr. Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and a permanent U.S. resident, was living in San Antonio in 2020 when he was lured by Rwandan operatives into flying to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. After that, he boarded a private jet thinking that he was flying to Burundi for a speaking engagement, only to land in Rwanda.
In the hours after, Mr. Rusesabagina said that he had been blindfolded and tortured and held in solitary confinement. It wasn’t until days later that the authorities paraded him in front of the news media and charged him with being the founder and leader of a group that sponsored and financed terrorist activities against Rwandans.
In a letter released on Friday by the Rwandan government but dated October, Mr. Rusesabagina asked Mr. Kagame to be pardoned, adding that he regretted any association with political groups that used violence.
“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 wrote. “I can assure you through this letter that I hold no personal or political ambitions otherwise.”
A U.S. congressional aide familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the situation, confirmed that Mr. Rusesabagina had written the letter and that it had been a key step in the process of winning his release.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said in a report in March 2022 that the Rwandan government had abducted and arbitrarily detained Mr. Rusesabagina, and urged the government not only to release him but also to compensate him. Mr. Kagame had boasted about the operation, calling it “flawless.”
The U.S. Congress and the European Parliament called for his release. The State Department said last year that Mr. Rusesabagina was being “unlawfully detained.”
Even though the case had become a sore point between the two countries, the United States gave Rwanda $147 million in aid in 2021.
On a visit to Kigali in August, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken addressed the issue of Mr. Rusesabagina’s detention with Mr. Kagame during a private meeting. “I’m not going to get into specifics, but we’ll continue to engage on it,” Mr. Blinken said at the time.
Last year, Mr. Rusesabagina’s youngest daughter, Carine Kanimba, testified before Congress that her cellphone had been hacked using sophisticated private spyware in the months after her father’s abduction. Observers and critics pointed the finger at Rwanda, but Mr. Kagame repeatedly denied that his country had obtained or used the software, known as Pegasus and developed by an Israeli company.