Friday, 24 May 2024

Paul Rusesabagina, ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Dissident, Departs Rwanda for Qatar

Paul Rusesabagina, the human rights activist, left Rwanda on Monday, more than 900 days after he was duped into re-entering the country, charged with terrorism and sentenced to 25 years in prison before being released after monthslong negotiations brokered by the United States.

Mr. Rusesabagina, 68, whose heroism during the Rwandan genocide was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie “Hotel Rwanda,” flew out of the capital, Kigali, bound for the Qatari capital, Doha. He had arrived at the official Qatari residence in Kigali late Friday evening and stayed there for two days before departing.

“I can confirm that Paul Rusesabagina has left Rwanda and is currently in Doha,” John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said at a news conference on Monday. “He will soon be making his way back to the United States.”

The case had attracted sweeping global condemnation and strained the central African nation’s relationship with the United States. The release came more than two and a half years after the arrest of Mr. Rusesabagina, a former hotelier who was lauded for saving 1,268 people during the 1994 genocide, in which as many as one million people were killed during bloodshed that lasted 100 days.

As his profile grew and his story garnered widespread global attention and coveted awards, Mr. Rusesabagina also became a staunch critic of President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and his heavy-handed rule of the landlocked African nation. Soon after, Rwandan officials accused the rights activist of fabricating his heroism and supporting opposition groups bent on toppling the government in Kigali.

Mr. Rusesabagina, who is a Belgian citizen and a permanent resident of the United States, became anxious about being surveilled in Brussels, where members of his family lived, and in 2009 he moved them to a gated community in San Antonio, Texas.

It was while living there in August 2020 that he flew to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, to give speeches in Burundi, Rwanda’s neighbor, he said. From Dubai, Mr. Rusesabagina boarded a private jet with Constantin Niyomwungere, a pastor whom he called his friend but who he said was, in fact, a Rwandan agent charged with bringing him to Rwanda.

The flight, paid for by Rwanda, landed in Kigali, where Mr. Rusesabagina said he was tied up, blindfolded and detained. He was later charged and accused of belonging to an opposition group whose armed wing carried out deadly attacks in Rwanda.

Mr. Rusesabagina is a cancer survivor who also has cardiovascular issues, and he, his family and lawyers all said that his health deteriorated in prison. And after a seven-month trial, during which he boycotted the proceedings, he was convicted and sentenced.

Last Friday, Mr. Rusesabagina was released alongside 19 others, and his sentence was commuted. That fact, Rwanda’s justice minister, Emmanuel Ugirashebuja, said in a statement, did not stamp out his conviction.

“If any individual benefiting from early release repeats offenses of a similar nature, the commutation can be revoked and the remainder of the prison sentence will be served,” he said. The commutation, Mr. Ugirashebuja said, also did not affect the compensation he and others owed to the victims of their attacks.

To secure his release, Mr. Rusesabagina wrote a letter to Mr. Kagame in October seeking amnesty and showing remorse over any association with political groups that used violence. In the letter, released by the Rwandan government and confirmed by his lawyer, Mr. Rusesabagina says that he holds no “political ambitions,” plans to “leave questions regarding Rwandan politics behind me” and promised to spend the remainder of his days “in the United States in quiet reflection.”

Last year, the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that the Rwandan government had abducted Mr. Rusesabagina and arbitrarily detained him. The group called for him to be released and compensated, and for an independent investigation of his abduction to be conducted.

“Mr. Rusesabagina’s release undoubtedly is great news,” Elina Steinerte, who was the chair rapporteur of the group at the time, said in an interview. “But from the perspective of international human rights law,” she said, outstanding questions remain.

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