‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero Paul Rusesabagina to be freed from prison, Rwanda government says

Rusesabagina lived in exile in San Antonio before he was captured on an overseas trip three years ago

Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film "Hotel Rwanda" for saving people from genocide, appears at the Kicukiro Primary Court in the capital Kigali, Rwanda Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. (AP Photo) (Uncredited, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

KIGALI – Rwanda’s government has commuted the sentence of Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda” for saving more than a thousand countrymen from genocide but was convicted of terrorism offenses years later in a widely criticized trial.

Government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told The Associated Press on Friday that the 25-year sentence was commuted by presidential order after a request for clemency. Under Rwandan law, a commutation doesn’t “extinguish” the conviction, she added.

Rusesabagina, a U.S. resident who lived in exile in San Antonio and a Belgian citizen, is expected to be released on Saturday, she said. He still has family who live in San Antonio and have been interviewed by KSAT.

His family released the following statement to KSAT on Friday:

“We are pleased to hear the news about Paul’s release. The family is hopeful to reunite with him soon.”

Makolo told the AP that, “Rwanda notes the constructive role of the U.S. government in creating conditions for dialogue on this issue, as well as the facilitation provided by the state of Qatar.”

The case had been described by the United States and others as unfair. Rusesabagina disappeared in 2020 during a visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and appeared days later in Rwanda in handcuffs. His family alleged he was kidnapped and taken to Rwanda against his will to stand trial.

He was convicted on eight charges including membership in a terrorist group, murder and abduction. But the circumstances surrounding his arrest, his limited access to an independent legal team and his reported worsening health drew international concern.

Rusesabagina has asserted that his arrest was in response to his criticism of Kagame over alleged human rights abuses. Kagame’s government has repeatedly denied targeting dissenting voices with arrests and extrajudicial killings.

Since his arrest, U.S. and Texas politicians, actors and human rights activists have urged the Rwandan government to free Rusesabagina, who is credited with sheltering a group of Huti and Tutsi refugees at his hotel during the 1994 genocide.

In the summer of 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass H. Res. 892, calling for his release.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, who authorized the resolution with Congresswoman Young Kim, of California, said Rusesabagina’s capture was “a clear effort to silence his criticism of President Paul Kagame’s regime.”

“Mr. Rusesabagina is a cancer survivor in poor health, and he needs better medical care than Rwandan authorities are providing,” Castro said at the time. “If President Kagame and the Rwandan government want to rebuild their credibility on the international stage, they must start by sending Mr. Rusesabagina back home to his family in San Antonio.” Castro, who authorized the resolution with Congresswoman Young Kim, of California, said Rusesabagina’s capture was “a clear effort to silence his criticism of President Paul Kagame’s regime.”

Rusesabagina left Rwanda in 1996, and he and his family received asylum in Belgium. They later moved to San Antonio.

Former President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, a year after “Hotel Rwanda” was released.

Actor Don Cheadle, who portrayed Rusesabagina in the movie, has also urged for the man’s release.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken issued the following statement:

“I welcome today’s release of Paul Rusesabagina by the Government of Rwanda. It is a relief to know that Paul is rejoining his family, and the U.S. Government is grateful to the Rwandan Government for making this reunion possible. We also thank the Government of Qatar for their valuable assistance that will enable Paul’s return to the United States.

“The United States believes in a Rwanda that is peaceful and prosperous. We reaffirm the principle of seeking political change in Rwanda and globally through peaceful means. There is simply no place for political violence.  I thank those across the U.S. Government who have worked with the Rwandan Government to enable this outcome.”

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About the Authors:

Rebecca Salinas has worked in digital news for more than 10 years and joined KSAT in 2019. She reports on a variety of topics for KSAT 12 News.