Paul Rusesabagina, Real-World Inspiration Behind ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ to be Freed From Prison

The civil rights activist was convicted on terrorism charges in 2021 in a trial he called a “sham”

Paul Rusesabagina attends the "Hotel Rwanda" Press Conference
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Rwanda’s government has commuted the sentence of Paul Rusesabagina, the man who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda” and was convicted on terrorism charges in 2021.

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. Rusesabagina, a U.S. resident and Belgian citizen, is expected to be released on Saturday, she said.

“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,” Makolo told The AP.

The U.S. designated Rusesabagina as “wrongly detained,” and said that “the reported lack of fair trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict.” The civil rights activist denied all the charges and refused to take part in the trial that he and his supporters called a political sham, Reuters reported.

He did admit to being part of the leadership in the opposition group, the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change, but denied responsibility for attacks carried out by its armed faction, the Forces for National Liberation, Reuters said. The trial judges said the two wings of the group were indistinguishable.

He was convicted of forming an illegal armed group, being a member of a terrorist group and financing a terror group. While he didn’t admit to the charges, he took a conciliatory tone in asking for his release.

“I regret not taking more care to ensure that members of the MRCD coalition fully adhered to the principles of non violence,” Rusesabagina wrote in an Oct. 14 letter to longtime Rwandan President Paul Kagame seeking clemency, which was seen by Reuters. “If I am granted a pardon and released, I understand fully that I will spend the remainder of my days in the United States in quiet reflection.”

Rusesabagina saved over 1,200 people during the 1994 genocide, when ethnic Hutus killed more than 800,000 people, mostly from the country’s Tutsi minority. The 2004 film, which earned star Don Cheadle an Oscar nomination, depicted him as a hero for using the luxury hotel in Kigali where he was the manager to shelter people.

He used the international fame he gained from the film to call attention to what he described as human rights violations by the government of Kagame, Al Jazeera reported.

Kagame’s government denies targeting critics.

In 2020, during a visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Rusesabagina disappeared. He surfaced days later in Rwanda in handcuffs. His family claimed he was kidnapped and taken to Rwanda against his will to stand trial.

“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 will initially be flown to Doha, and then to the United States, according to Reuters.