'Hotel Rwanda' hero Paul Rusesabagina freed from jail

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Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) then chairman Paul Rusesabagina speaks during a press conference in 2019 - AFP
Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) then chairman Paul Rusesabagina speaks during a press conference in 2019 - AFP

US President Joe Biden welcomed the release of  Rwandan government critic Paul Rusesabagina, whose efforts to save people during the 1994 genocide were portrayed in the Hollywood film "Hotel Rwanda".

Mr Rusesabagina was released late on Friday from prison after more than 900 days behind bars. He will return to the United States after the Kigali government commuted his 25-year sentence on terrorism charges.

"Paul's family is eager to welcome him back to the United States, and I share their joy at today's good news," Mr Biden said in a statement.

Mr Rusesabagina's detention sparked criticism in the West and among rights groups, and highlighted Rwanda's record of crushing political dissent and free speech under President Paul Kagame.

He was jailed after he was found to have backed an armed rebel group in a trial that his supporters denounced as a sham.

The 68-year-old has been in failing health and his family said he was tortured during his 939 days in detention.

His sentence was "commuted by presidential order", as were the prison terms of 19 co-defendants convicted alongside him, government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told AFP.

Shortly before midnight on Friday, Mr Rusesabagina arrived at the Qatari ambassador's residence in Kigali, a US official said.

He will likely stay there for "a couple of days" before flying to Qatar, which helped broker his release, and then to the US where he has permanent residency, another US official said.

Rwanda praised the role of both the US and Qatar in resolving the case, after Mr Kagame held talks in Doha earlier this month.

"This is the result of a shared desire to reset (the) US-Rwanda relationship," Mr Kagame's press secretary Stephanie Nyombayire tweeted on Friday, adding the close relationship between Rwanda and Qatar was "key".

Mr Rusesabagina, also a Belgian citizen, 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.

He was arrested after a plane en route to Burundi was diverted to Rwanda in August 2020 in an incident the United Nations has described as an "abduction".

Mr Rusesabagina had left Rwanda in 1996 and relocated to Belgium with his wife and children.

Nearly a decade later, he became an almost overnight celebrity with the release of the 2004 film "Hotel Rwanda" starring Don Cheadle.

The film was inspired by his experience as a hotel manager during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when his family and hundreds of guests – mainly ethnic Tutsis like his wife – took refuge inside the Mille Collines as machete-wielding mobs killed people outside the hotel gates.

Mr Rusesabagina is credited with helping save almost 1,200 lives during the 100-day slaughter that left about 800,000 Rwandans dead and ended with a new Tutsi-dominated government.

He went on to become a vocal critic of Mr Kagame. In a letter dated October 2022, Mr Rusesabagina pledged to bow out of political life in exchange for a pardon.

Mr Rusesabagina's case has long been a source of contention between Washington and Kigali, and it was raised by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on a visit to Rwanda in August last year.