‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero liberated: What’s next for Rusesabagina?

KIGALI, Rwanda (Caasimada Online) – Paul Rusesabagina, an outspoken critic of the Rwandan government and the central figure in the acclaimed movie “Hotel Rwanda,” has been released after spending more than 900 days behind bars.

Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen with US permanent residency, is set to return to the United States following the Kigali government’s decision to commute his 25-year sentence on terrorism charges.

The high-profile imprisonment had drawn international attention to Rwanda’s pattern of suppressing political dissent and freedom of speech under President Paul Kagame.

Disputed conviction and health concerns

In September 2021, Rusesabagina was found guilty of supporting an armed rebel group in a trial that his advocates claimed was a farce.

The 68-year-old’s health had deteriorated, and his family alleged he endured torture during his 939 days in detention.

Following his release, a US official confirmed that Rusesabagina was brought to the Qatari ambassador’s residence in Kigali.

He is anticipated to remain there for a few days before traveling to Qatar, which was crucial in securing his release, and then to the United States.

Rusesabagina’s sentence and those of 19 co-defendants were commuted by presidential order, as announced by Justice Minister Emmanuel Ugirashebuja.

However, he noted that under Rwandan law, “commutation of the sentence does not extinguish the underlying conviction.”

International reactions to the release 

US President Joe Biden expressed happiness at Rusesabagina’s release, calling it a “happy outcome.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also conveyed gratitude to Rwanda for the release, and Belgium likewise welcomed the decision.

Rwanda commended the United States and Qatar for their roles in resolving the case. A source knowledgeable about the negotiations revealed that talks began in late 2022.

A breakthrough occurred last week during discussions between Kagame and Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

From hotel manager to political adversary

Rusesabagina faced accusations of supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel group held responsible for attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019, which resulted in nine deaths.

Although he denied any involvement in the attacks, Rusesabagina was a founding member of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition group believed to have the FLN as its armed division.

Rusesabagina was arrested in August 2020 after a plane bound for Burundi was diverted to Rwanda, an event the United Nations has labeled as an “abduction.”

He had departed Rwanda in 1996, settling in Belgium with his family.

Clemency in exchange for disengagement

In a letter from October 2022, released by the Rwandan government on Friday, Rusesabagina pledged to “leave questions regarding Rwandan politics behind me” and spend the remainder of his life in the United States in return for clemency.

He also expressed “regret for any connection my work with the MRCD may have had to violent actions taken by the FLN.”

The case involving Rusesabagina has long been a point of contention between Washington and Kigali, with Blinken addressing the issue during his visit to Rwanda in August last year.

Rusesabagina’s family filed a $ 400 million lawsuit in the United States against Kagame, the Rwandan government, and other individuals for allegedly abducting and torturing him.

Victoire Ingabire, another Kagame critic who was previously imprisoned on terrorism charges before being released in 2018, contends that the move is aimed at stifling Rwanda’s opposition.

“Once the Rwandan courts have convicted a person, they are stripped of their rights to engage in politics, and a presidential pardon does not restore those rights,” Ingabire explained.

The real-life story behind “Hotel Rwanda”

Rusesabagina gained instant fame with the release of the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” in which Don Cheadle starred.

The movie depicted his experiences as a hotel manager during the 1994 genocide when his family and hundreds of mainly ethnic Tutsi guests sought refuge in the Mille Collines hotel as violent mobs murdered people just outside the hotel gates.

Rusesabagina is credited with saving approximately 1,200 lives during the 100-day massacre that killed around 800,000 Rwandans.

After leaving Rwanda, Rusesabagina emerged as a vocal critic of Kagame. His relentless opposition to the man who has been Rwanda’s de facto leader since the genocide led to him being labeled an enemy of the state.

His release and subsequent commitment to distance himself from Rwandan politics could be seen as a victory for the Kagame government, which has a history of silencing dissenting voices.

As Rusesabagina embarks on a new chapter in his life in the United States, the world will be watching to see how his story progresses and how his release will impact the broader fight for free speech and political dissent Rwanda.