- Rwanda announced Friday that it is commuting the 25-year sentence of dissident Paul Rusesabagina.
- Human rights activists had condemned his 2021 conviction on terrorism-related charges.
- Rusesabagina became famous for his role saving over 1,000 people during the Rwandan genocide.
The Rwandan government announced Friday that it is releasing political dissident Paul Rusesabagina from prison. Rusesabagina, whose story inspired the Hollywood movie “Hotel Rwanda,” saved over 1,000 people from being killed during the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame commuted Rusesabagina’s 25-year prison sentence following Rusesabagina’s request for clemency, according to a government statement.
Rusesabagina, now 68, had been convicted on terrorism-related charges in 2021 for his connection to the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change, a group critical of Kagame’s government.
Though Rusesabagina admitted to being a leader in MRCD, he denied involvement in the group’s armed wing, the National Liberation Front, which was accused of carrying out deadly attacks, CNN reported.
Friday’s commutation is a victory for Rusesabagina, whose conviction was widely criticized by dozens of US senators and international human rights groups as a politically motivated and wrongful conviction.
“We are pleased to hear the news about Paul’s release. The family is hopeful to reunite with him soon,” a spokesperson for Rusesabagina’s family told CNN.
Rusesabagina is best known for saving over a thousand Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, where the Hutu death squads killed around 800,000 Tutsis, an ethnic minority, over 100 days in 1994.
At the time, Rusesabagina managed a hotel where he sheltered 1,268 Tutsis, including his wife and children, from death squads surrounding the hotel, The New York Times reported.
Rusesabagina wrote in his 2006 autobiography “An Ordinary Man” that after authorities told him to evacuate the building, it became surrounded by “hundreds of [militia] holding spears, machetes, and rifles,” adding that, “It would be a killing zone… in an hour,” according to BBC News.
But, Rusesabagina managed to use his international connections and resources at the Belgian-owned hotel to bribe officials and ward off the killers throughout the massacre, according to The New York Times.
Rusesabagina once referred to his hotel as “an island of fear in a sea of fire,” and thanks to his efforts, every one of his hotel residents survived, according to The Times.
His story was immortalized in the Oscar-nominated 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” in which Don Cheadle played Rusesabagina.
President George W. Bush awarded Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 for his “remarkable courage and compassion in the face of genocidal terror.”
The Rwandan government said in a statement that although his sentence has been commuted, that “does not extinguish the underlying conviction.”
He will be released on Saturday along with 19 others who had been convicted alongside him, according to the government’s statement. Rusesabagina, who is a Belgian citizen and a US resident, will first fly to Qatar where he may be joined by his family, and then to the US, Reuters reported.