The man who was celebrated as a hero in the movie Hotel Rwanda for saving lives during the Rwandan genocide has been released from prison.
Senior Biden administration officials confirmed to reporters that Paul Rusesabagina had been released from prison in the capital of Kigali late Friday evening. He was accompanied by U.S. Embassy officials and moved to the residence of Qatar's ambassador.
He was released after the Rwandan government commuted his sentence of 25 years on terrorism charges. He was sentenced in 2021.
In the coming days, the 68-year-old U.S. resident and Belgian citizen will return to the United States, which has been pushing for his release. He is expected to return home to his family in Texas.
"The family of Paul Rusesabagina is pleased to hear the news about his release," a spokesperson said in a statement. "They hope to reunite with him soon."
Rusesabagina was a hotel manager during the 1994 genocide. He rose to fame when Hollywood released the film, where he was played by Don Cheadle about his actions to protect Tutsis, who sought refuge at the hotel from Hutu death squads. He was credited with protecting and saving the lives of more than 1,000 people.
Rusesabagina was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President George W. Bush in 2005.
He's been an outspoken critic of Rwanda's President Paul Kagame and was sentenced in 2021.
His family says he was kidnapped in 2020 after he boarded a plane in Dubai that he believed was taking him to Burundi. But the flight landed in the Rwanda instead.
Upon his arrival, he was arrested and put on trial over his ties to the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), a group that opposes Kagame's rule. Rusesabagina acknowledges having a leadership role within the group but denies links to the armed wing, the Forces for National Liberation.
The case has been an irritant in Rwanda's relations with the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the case with Kagame on a trip last year.
"This is the result of a shared desire to reset US-Rwanda relationship," Stephanie Nyombayire, Kagame's spokesperson, wrote on Twitter.
The government of Qatar was also involved in the negotiations to release Rusesabagina. The sentences of 18 other prisoners who were convicted alongside him have also been commuted.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The man who was celebrated as a hero in the movie "Hotel Rwanda" has been released from prison in Rwanda. He was imprisoned on terrorism charges, and the case had irritated relations between the U.S. and Rwanda. NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now to talk about what seems to be a diplomatic breakthrough. Hey, Michele.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there.
CHANG: So this news - it just broke today. What do we know about his release?
KELEMEN: So Paul Rusesabagina had his sentence commuted first, and then he was released from prison. A U.S. diplomat was with him, we're told, when he was taken from prison to the Qatari ambassador's residence. We're expecting him soon to fly on to Qatar and then onto the U.S. to Texas, where his family lives. And, you know, as you said, this is a case that has really strained relations between the U.S. and Rwanda. Secretary of State Antony Blinken brought it up when he was in Rwanda last year, meeting with President Paul Kagame. Take a listen to what he said then.
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ANTONY BLINKEN: I raised the case of Paul Rusesabagina, who was a lawful permanent resident of the United States, and underscored our concerns about the lack of fair trial guarantees provided to him.
KELEMEN: And, you know, Kagame at the time really seemed unimpressed by this. He came to Washington a few months later for an African leaders summit, and he spoke at an event hosted by Semafor. He said he wouldn't cave to pressure just because Rusesabagina is famous.
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PRESIDENT PAUL KAGAME: We've made it clear. There isn't anybody going to come from anywhere to bully us into something to do with our lives.
KELEMEN: And that was just in December.
CHANG: Wow. Well, what has changed since then?
KELEMEN: Quiet diplomacy, it seems. U.S. officials say that President Biden's national security advisor had lots of phone calls with his Rwandan counterpart and meetings about this. And the administration sent a clear message that relations could be reinvigorated if Rwanda clears up what they called, you know, an irritant in relations. I should also note that Rusesabagina also wrote a lengthy letter to Paul Kagame, and in it, he promises that he would spend his remaining days in the U.S., as he put it, in quiet reflection. He said he would leave Rwandan politics behind him. And, you know, he's led this opposition group. An armed wing of that group has claimed responsibility for some deadly attacks. That's what he was tried for. In his letter, he wrote clearly that violence is never acceptable.
CHANG: Well, as we mentioned, Michele, Rusesabagina is mostly known here as a heroic figure from the Rwandan genocide. Can you tell us a little more about his story for those people who don't know it?
KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, he was a hotel manager during the Rwandan genocide and protected more than a thousand Tutsis who took refuge at his hotel. The movie was about that story, and it turned him really into an international star. He used that star power in later years to criticize Kagame's government for backsliding on human rights. And his family says that he was essentially kidnapped in 2020 and brought back to Rwanda to face trial. They are really breathing a sigh of relief today.
CHANG: I can imagine. That is NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thank you, Michele.
KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.