Kigali (AFP) - An ailing Paul Rusesabagina, the polarising hero of the hit movie "Hotel Rwanda", was released late Friday and will return to the United States after the Kigali government commuted a sentence against the outspoken critic of President Paul Kagame.
The 68-year-old Rusesabagina, credited for turning his hotel into a shelter during the 1994 genocide, was escorted just before midnight to the residence of the ambassador of Qatar, which played a key role as an intermediary, US officials said.
Rusesabagina, now a Belgian citizen and US permanent resident, will fly to Qatar and then back to the United States, officials in Doha and Washington said.
Rusesabagina's family says he was lured back to Rwanda where he was handed a 25-year sentence on terrorism charges in September 2021.
The sentence was "commuted by presidential order" as were the prison terms of 19 co-defendants convicted alongside him, government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told AFP.
But Makolo added: "Under Rwandan law, commutation of sentence does not extinguish the underlying conviction."
Rusesabagina was jailed on charges of backing an armed group after a trial that his supporters denounced as a sham plagued with irregularities.
Rwanda said the decision would improve ties with the United States, which has also voiced concerns about Kigali's alleged backing of rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"This is the result of a shared desire to reset US-Rwanda relationship," Kagame's press secretary Stephanie Nyombayire said on Twitter, adding that the close relationship between Rwanda and Qatar was a "key" factor.
Friday's announcement came a day after Kagame left Qatar, where he had signalled his government was looking at ways of resolving the case.
Talks on a potential release started at the end of 2022, and a breakthrough came last week in discussions between Kagame and Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, said a source with knowledge of the negotiations.
Fears for health
His family has accused the authorities of torturing him during his 939 days in prison and warned about his deteriorating health, saying he could die behind bars.
"We are pleased to hear the news about Paul's release.The family is hopeful to reunite with him soon," the family said in a statement to AFP.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed Rusesabagina's release, although US officials said there were no promises made to Kigali beyond public recognition of their move and that concern remained over the DR Congo.
"It is a relief to know that Paul is rejoining his family, and the US government is grateful to the Rwandan government for making this reunion possible," Blinken said, also thanking growing partner Qatar.
In a carefully worded statement, Blinken said the United States opposes "political violence" without backing Rwanda's accusations against Rusesabagina.
Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib also welcomed Rusesabagina's release and said that the former colonial power was offering consular assistance.
Promise to be 'quiet'
Rusesabagina, then the manager of a Kigali hotel, is credited with having helped to save about 1,200 lives during the 1994 genocide in which about 800,000 people were slaughtered, mainly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus.
His story inspired the Oscar-nominated 2004 movie "Hotel Rwanda" starring US actor Don Cheadle.
He went on become a vocal critic of Kagame, and his tirades against a leader he branded a "dictator" led him to be treated as an enemy of the state.
In a letter dated October 2022 seeking a pardon that was released by the government on Friday, Rusesabagina pledged to bow out of political life.
"I understand fully that I will spend the remainder of my days in the United States in quiet reflection.I can assure you through this letter that I hold no personal or political ambitions otherwise.I will leave questions regarding Rwandan politics behind me."
Kagame, whose country has a grim record on human rights, last year insisted the US could not "bully" him into ordering his release.
Timothy Longman, an expert on Rwanda at Boston University, described Friday's announcement as a "pretty standard tactic" for the government.
"They put an opponent on trial on trumped-up charges and publicly humiliate them.Then either they're acquitted or pardoned.It's quite effective at silencing would-be critics while appearing moderate and reasonable," said Longman, who first met Rusesabagina in the mid-1990s.
Rusesabagina was accused of supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel group blamed for attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019 that killed nine people.
He 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.
"I wish to express my regret for any connection my work with the MRCD may have had to violent actions taken by the FLN," he said in his October letter.
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.