Man who inspired Hotel Rwanda film to be released from prison after ‘unfair’ terror sentence is reduced


The former hotel manager portrayed as a hero in the Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda is due to be released from prison after having his 25-year sentence for terror offences reduced.

Paul Rusesabagina, who was played by US actor Don Cheadle in the Oscar-nominated film in 2004, was credited with saving the lives of more than 1,000 ethnic Tutsis after sheltering them at the hotel he managed during Rwanda’s genocide a decade earlier.

The 68-year-old received the US presidential medal of freedom for his efforts.

Mr Rusesabagina became a public critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and left Rwanda in 1996, first living in Belgium and then the US.

In 2020, he disappeared during a visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and appeared days later in Rwanda in handcuffs.

His family say he was kidnapped and taken to the east African country against his will to stand in a widely-criticised trial.

He was later convicted on eight charges including membership of a terrorist group, murder and abduction.

Mr Rusesabagina, a US resident and Belgian citizen, said his arrest was in response to his criticism of Mr Kagame over alleged human rights abuses.

Mr Kagame’s government has repeatedly denied targeting dissenting voices with arrests and extrajudicial killings.

The circumstances surrounding Mr Rusesabagina’s arrest, his limited access to an independent legal team, and his reported worsening health drew international concern, with the US and other countries describing the case as unfair.

His 25-year sentence has now been commuted – or reduced – by presidential order after a request for clemency, government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo said on Friday.

She added that Mr Rusesabagina is due to be released on Saturday.

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Rusesabagina was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005
Rusesabagina was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005

“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,” Ms Makolo added.

Under Rwandan law, commutation does not “extinguish” the conviction, she added.

In a signed letter to Mr Kagame dated 14 October and posted on the justice ministry’s website, Mr Rusesabagina wrote that “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.

“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.”

Human Rights Watch said Mr Rusesabagina had been “forcibly disappeared” and taken to Rwanda in 2020.

But the court there ruled he was not kidnapped when he was tricked into boarding a chartered flight.

Rwanda’s government asserted that Mr Rusesabagina had been going to Burundi to coordinate with armed groups based there and in Congo.

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US actor Don Cheadle played Paul Rusesabagina in the 2004 film
US actor Don Cheadle played Paul Rusesabagina in the 2004 film

Mr 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 in which nine Rwandans died.

Mr Rusesabagina testified at trial that he helped to form the armed group to assist refugees but said he never supported violence – and sought to distance himself from its deadly attacks.

He also has said he was gagged and tortured before he was jailed, but Rwandan authorities denied that.

Last year, US secretary of state Antony Blinken met with Mr Kagame in Rwanda and discussed the case.

“We still have conviction that the trial wasn’t fair,” Mr Blinken told journalists.

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