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Rwanda releases Paul Rusesabagina, inspiration for ‘Hotel Rwanda’, says US


NAIROBI — Rwandan authorities on Friday released human rights activist Paul Rusesabagina, whose life inspired “Hotel Rwanda,” the Hollywood film about the 1994 nationwide genocide, U.S. officials said.

The former hotel manager was sentenced to 25 years for terrorism in 2021 after authorities tricked him into boarding a plane that secretly took him to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. His imprisonment has been strongly contested by US officials and has set back bilateral relations between Kigali and Washington, which has spent months pushing the Rwandan government privately and publicly to release him.

Rusesabagina was released at the residence of Qatar’s ambassador to Rwanda, where he will reside for a few days before flying to Qatar and then the United States, where he is a legal permanent resident, senior officials said. administration, who spoke to reporters about the condition. of anonymity to discuss the sensitive arrangement.

“We are pleased that Paul Rusesabagina has been released from prison in Rwanda,” said one of the US officials, who credited Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan with having worked with Rwandan officials to secure the release of Rusesabagina. “It has been a two-way irritant and we have sought to resolve it as we believe it is the right thing to do to reunite Paul with his family.”

Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo said the sentences of Callixte Nsabimana and 18 others convicted in the same case had been commuted after pleas for clemency.

She said the United States had “created a dialogue” on the issue, but continued: “Serious crimes have been committed, for which they have been convicted. Under Rwandan law, commutation of sentence does not extinguish the underlying conviction.

After his release from prison, Rusesabagina was accompanied by an official from the United States Embassy.

Rusesabagina’s case has highlighted growing opposition to Rwandan President Paul Kagame, once lauded for ending Rwanda’s genocide and for his focus on developing the small East African nation, but increasingly increasingly criticized for his authoritarian rule, the kidnapping of Rusesabagina and accusations of supporting rebels in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, which the government has denied.

In a statement, Blinken thanked the Rwandan and Qatari governments for making Rusesabagina’s release possible. “The United States believes in a peaceful and prosperous Rwanda,” he said. “We reaffirm the principle of seeking political change in Rwanda and in the world through peaceful means. There is simply no place for political violence.

Hollywood actor Don Cheadle played Rusesabagina in the hit film “Hotel Rwanda”, which was inspired by his experiences as a hotel manager protecting Tutsi guests from Hutu death squads. Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen who has lived in the United States, received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom – the country’s highest civilian honor – in 2005.

Rusesabagina and Kagame were once cordial, but over the years Rusesabagina has become a vocal critic of Kagame, saying he stifles political opposition. The president retaliated by accusing Rusesabagina of having exaggerated his role during the genocide.

In 2020, Rwanda lured Rusesabagina on a plane he thought was going to Burundi but landed in Kigali instead. There he was arrested and faced a battery of charges related to creating and supporting an opposition group – the National Liberation Front – which has been accused of attacks that killed civilians.

During his trial, the judge cited as evidence of his guilt a video from 2018 in which Rusesabagina states: “The time has come for us to use all possible means to bring about change in Rwanda, because all political means have been tried and failed”.

The sentencing sparked a storm of global criticism, with more than three dozen U.S. senators urging Kagame to release Rusesabagina on humanitarian grounds and launching a high-profile campaign for his release involving celebrities, political leaders and grassroots organizations. defense of rights.

Rusesabagina’s release comes after a noticeable cooling in relations between Kigali and Washington.

“This is one of the two issues that have really soured relations with Washington: the rendition of Rusesabagina and his active support for the M23 rebels. I think Kagame finally realized that it was not a good idea to make an enemy of the US government,” said Michela Wrong, author of “Do Not Disturb,” a book about the murder of the former spy. Rwanda after his falling out with Kagame. .

US statements on Rwanda have become blunt and forceful, she said. They have gone from criticizing Kigali for backing M23 rebels across the border in Congo to demanding that Rwanda stop deploying troops there.

Rwanda has denied supporting the rebels – responsible for many massacres of civilians – but relations between the two neighbors are extremely strained. Rwanda fired on a Congolese plane in January.

A US government official said Blinken discussed Rusesabagina at length during a visit to Kigali in August. State Department diplomats, including the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs, have kept the process on track, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.

Phil Clark, professor of international politics at SOAS University of London, observed part of Rusesabagina’s trial in Kigali. There were notable irregularities in the trial, he said, and the manner in which Rusesabagina was arrested was problematic.

But he also noted that most of the evidence produced by Rwanda showing that Rusesabagina funded a rebel movement came from the FBI and Belgian authorities. Both the United States and Belgium provided Western Union and other wire transfer evidence showing money transferred from Rusesabagina’s account to active rebels, he said.

The FBI declined to comment on its role in providing evidence to Rwandan authorities. The Belgian prosecutor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Rusesabagina’s lawyers and a family spokeswoman did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Clark said the case had come under scrutiny at a time when Rwanda was looking to boost its international profile. He is expanding peacekeeping missions across Africa, leading the Commonwealth of Nations, and has struck a deal with Britain to take migrants who have entered the country illegally – a plan that has sparked increased scrutiny of Rwanda’s human rights record.

Kigali has received about $147 million in bilateral aid from the United States, Clark said, including US military support for Rwandan peacekeepers across Africa. The numbers fluctuate from year to year, but have reached $33 million per year.

Kigali may have calculated it had enough victories, Clark said: showing it can project power beyond international borders by kidnapping a dissident and gaining information on National Liberation Front funding in the public domain.

“Eventually this case got too much for them,” Clark said.

Hudson reported from Washington. Rael Ombuor in Nairobi, Missy Ryan in Washington and Beatriz Rios in Brussels contributed to this report.


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