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Rwanda says Rusesabagina, known for ‘Hotel Rwanda’, will be released


KIGALI, Rwanda — The Rwandan government has commuted the sentence of Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda” for saving hundreds of compatriots from genocide, but was convicted of terrorist offenses years later in a widely criticized trial.

Government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told The Associated Press on Friday that the 25-year sentence was commuted by presidential order following a request for clemency. According to Rwandan law, commutation does not “extinguish” the conviction, she added.

Rusesabagina, a 68-year-old US resident and Belgian, is expected to be released on Saturday, she said. Nineteen others also received reduced sentences.

“Rwanda notes the constructive role of the US administration in creating the conditions for dialogue on this issue, as well as the facilitation by the State of Qatar,” Makolo said. President Paul Kagame said earlier this month that talks were underway to resolve the issue.

The case had been described as unfair by the United States and others. Rusesabagina disappeared in 2020 while visiting Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and reappeared in Rwanda days later, handcuffed. His family claimed he was abducted and taken to Rwanda against his will to face trial.

He was convicted of eight charges, including membership in a terrorist group, murder and kidnapping. But the circumstances surrounding his arrest, his limited access to an independent legal team and his reported deteriorating health have raised international concerns.

Rusesabagina has claimed his arrest was in response to his criticism of Kagame for alleged human rights violations. Kagame’s government has repeatedly denied attacking dissent with arrests and extrajudicial killings.

In a signed letter to Kagame dated Oct. 14 and posted on the Justice Department website, Rusesabagina wrote that “if I am pardoned and released, I fully understand that I will spend the remainder of my days in the United States in silent reflection. will spend. . I can assure you through this letter that I have no further personal or political ambitions. I leave questions about Rwandan politics behind me.”

Rusesabagina was credited with sheltering more than 1,000 ethnic Tutsis at the hotel he managed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which killed more than 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus trying to protect them. He was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts.

He became a public critic of Kagame and left Rwanda in 1996, first in Belgium and then in the US

Human Rights Watch said he “forcibly disappeared” and was taken to Rwanda. But the court there ruled that he had not been kidnapped when he was tricked into boarding a charter flight.

The government of Rwanda claimed that Rusesabagina went to Burundi to coordinate with armed groups there and in the Congo.

Rusesabagina was accused of supporting the armed wing of his opposition political platform, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change. The armed group claimed some responsibility for attacks in 2018 and 2019 in southern Rwanda that killed nine Rwandans.

Rusesabagina testified at the trial that he helped form the armed group to help refugees, but said he never supported violence — and tried to distance himself from the deadly attacks.

Rusesabagina also said he was gagged and tortured before being imprisoned, but Rwandan authorities denied that. His lawyer, Felix Rudakemwa, claimed that Rusesabagina’s legal papers had been seized by prison authorities.

Following his sentence, Belgium’s then Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes said that “it must be concluded that Mr. Rusesabagina has not received a fair and just trial.”

Last year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Kagame in Rwanda and discussed the matter. “We are still convinced that the trial was not fair,” Blinken told reporters.

As word spread on Friday, his family said in a statement: “we are delighted to hear the news of Paul’s release. The family hopes to reunite with him soon.”

Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

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