Paul Rusesabagina, hero of "Hotel Rwanda" and a vocal critic of Paul Kagame government, is freed and handed over to Qatar's ambassador in Kigali before he returns to US, officials say.

His release follows intense diplomacy by the United States, where Rusesabagina has permanent residency rights.
His release follows intense diplomacy by the United States, where Rusesabagina has permanent residency rights. (AP Archive)

Rwanda has commuted the 25-year sentence of Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film "Hotel Rwanda" for saving hundreds of countrymen from genocide but was convicted of terrorism offences years later in a widely criticised trial.

Government spokesperson Yolande Makolo told The Associated Press on Friday that the presidential order was issued after a request for clemency on behalf of Rusesabagina, a 68-year-old US resident and Belgian citizen. 

Senior US officials said Rusesabagina arrived late on Friday at the home of the Qatari ambassador in the Rwandan capital of Kigali and was expected to leave the country in the coming days. 

He will likely stay "a couple of days" before flying to Qatar, which helped broker his release, and then to the United States, another US official said.

Nineteen others also had their sentences commuted. Under Rwandan law, a commutation doesn't "extinguish" the conviction, Makolo added.

"Rwanda notes the constructive role of the US government in creating conditions for dialogue on this issue, as well as the facilitation provided by the state of Qatar," she said.

President Paul Kagame earlier this month said discussions were under way on resolving the issue.

Qatar Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majid al Ansari said in a statement that "the procedure for (Rusesabagina's) transfer to the state of Qatar is under way, and he will then head to the United States of America. This issue was discussed during meetings that brought together Qatari and Rwandan officials at the highest levels."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement welcoming the release, although US officials said there were no promises made to Kigali beyond public recognition of their move.

"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.

"We also thank the government of Qatar for their valuable assistance that will enable Paul's return to the United States."

US-Rwanda tensions 

Rusesabagina, who is credited with saving some 1,200 lives at a hotel he managed during the 1994 genocide, became a critic of President Paul Kagame and was sentenced to 25 years in prison on terrorism charges and his ties to an organisation opposed to the rule of Kagame. 

He denied all the charges and had refused to take part in the trial that he and his supporters called a political sham.

Rusesabagina will initially be flown to Doha, and then on to the United States, sources said.

Washington designated him as "wrongly detained", partly because of what it called the lack of fair trial guarantees.

The former hotelier's release may help ease tensions with the US, which has repeatedly called on Rwanda to cease its support of the M23 armed group and to withdraw its troops from neighbouring DRC.

Rwanda denies any involvement in DRC.

REAM MORE: ‘Hotel Rwanda’ film hero gets 25 years in jail on terror charges

Role in opposition group

Rusesabagina, a vocal critic of Kagame, acknowledged having a leadership role in the opposition group, the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change [MRCD], but denied responsibility for attacks carried out on Rwanda by its armed wing, the Forces for National Liberation (FLN).

The trial judges said the two wings of the group were indistinguishable.

"I regret not taking more care to ensure that members of the MRCD coalition fully adhered to the principles of non-violence," Rusesabagina wrote in an October 14 letter to Kagame seeking clemency, which was seen by the Reuters news agency.

"If I am granted a pardon and released, I understand fully that I will spend the remainder of my days in the United States in quiet reflection," he wrote.

Callixte Nsabimana, known by his alias Sankara, an FLN spokesperson who was convicted by a Rwandan court of terrorism, murder and hostage-taking in 2019, will be released alongside Rusesabagina and several others, the source said.

Earlier this month, Kagame said there were discussions about "resolving" the fate of Rusesabagina.

READ MORE: 'Hotel Rwanda' movie hero Rusesabagina arrested on terror charges

Source: TRTWorld and agencies