paul rusesabagina hotel rwanda hero freed from prison

Paul Rusesabagina, a critic of Rwanda’s president, was tricked into entering the country, then sentenced to 25 years after what his supporters called a show trial.

More than two and a half years after he was kidnapped on a private jet and later sentenced to prison on terrorism-related charges, Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier turned dissident whose heroism was portrayed in “Hotel Rwanda,” was released from prison late Friday night, according to the Rwandan government and to U.S. officials, who briefed reporters in Washington.

Mr. Rusesabagina arrived at the residence of Qatar’s ambassador to Rwanda, the U.S. officials said, and will travel in the next couple of days to the Qatari capital, Doha. After a short stopover there, Mr. Rusesabagina is expected to head to the United States to reunite with his family, with whom he has missed milestones that include the birth of two grandchildren and the college graduation of his son.

Mr. Rusesabagina’s departure from Rwanda will end an ordeal that lasted more than 900 days, during which he said he was blindfolded and tortured, held in solitary confinement and threatened with shortages of food, water and his medication. Mr. Rusesabagina’s arrest and trial drew the support of celebrities and governments abroad and put new scrutiny on Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, who has been accused of cracking down on dissent at home and targeting opponents abroad.

American officials said they could not comment about Mr. Rusesabagina’s health, citing privacy concerns.

On Saturday morning, reporters who had been invited a day earlier by the government to witness Mr. Rusesabagina’s impending release gathered in front of the Mageragere Prison on the outskirts of the capital — only for prison officials to tell them that he had left the previous night. Yolande Makolo, a Rwandan government spokeswoman, confirmed that he had been moved from prison to the Qatari ambassador’s residence.

His release was achieved after months of negotiations led by the White House.

Mr. Rusesabagina, 68, rose to fame for his role in sheltering and saving 1,268 people at the luxury hotel he managed in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, during the 1994 genocide. He later moved to the United States and over the years became an outspoken critic of the autocratic rule of Mr. Kagame. The president in turn lashed out against him, accusing him of profiting from fabricated stories about his heroism and of backing rebel groups determined to oust Mr. Kagame’s government.

The clash came to a head in August 2020, when Rwandan operatives lured Mr. Rusesabagina from his home in San Antonio to Dubai. While there, he boarded a private jet believing he was going to a speaking engagement in Burundi, only to land in neighboring Rwanda.

“Imagine how you would feel if you find yourself where you are not supposed to be,” he said in an interview with The New York Times just days after Rwandan officials announced they had detained him.

After his initial arrest, Mr. Rusesabagina said he was tortured by Rwandan security forces, who restrained him, stepped on his neck and denied him food and sleep. A cancer survivor with hypertension and a history of cardiovascular disease, he lost a lot of weight in the first few weeks in detention, his family and lawyers said.

But Rwandan officials, including Mr. Kagame, were elated about the elaborate ruse, gleefully declaring on television that it was “flawless.”

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Mr. Rusesabagina, who is a Belgian citizen and a United States resident, was then charged with backing and belonging to an opposition coalition whose armed wing the government said was responsible for attacks inside Rwanda.

Mr. Rusesabagina and his lawyers said that the authorities routinely confiscated confidential legal materials belonging to his defense, and Mr. Rusesabagina soon boycotted the trial altogether, calling it a “sham.” In September 2021, after a seven-month trial, he was given a 25-year sentence.

“This was a show trial, rather than a fair judicial inquiry,” said Geoffrey Robertson, a human rights lawyer who monitored the trial for the Clooney Foundation for Justice and was an author of a report on it.

His release on Saturday comes after months of quiet diplomacy by the United States. During a trip to Kigali last August, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken also raised Mr. Rusesabagina’s case with the Rwandan leadership, making it clear that his detention would remain an irritant until he was released, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity under White House ground rules.

Last October, Mr. Rusesabagina also wrote a letter to Mr. Kagame, seeking pardon and regretting any affiliation with political groups that used violence. After Mr. Rusesabagina wrote to Mr. Kagame, his lawyer, Ryan Fayhee, traveled to Kigali to meet with Rwandan justice officials and made a rare visit to see Mr. Rusesabagina in prison.

Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, also got involved, personally trying to find a way forward through phone calls as well as meetings in his office at the White House, the officials said. The officials said no specific concession was made to win Mr. Rusesabagina’s release, but they said the series of events was critical to making it happen.

On Friday, President Biden welcomed Mr. Rusesabagina’s release, saying in a statement that he was “eager to welcome him back to the United States.”

Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also called the development “a moment of great relief and reflection.” 

He added: “Mr. Rusesabagina’s sham trial and conviction made a mockery of justice, and his wrongful detention had a lasting impact on U.S. policy toward Rwanda.”

Peter Baker and Edward Wong contributed reporting.

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