How Qatar’s back channels secured Paul Rusesabagina freedom

Saturday March 25 2023
Hotel Rwanda ‘hero’ Paul Rusesabagina

Hotel Rwanda ‘hero’ Paul Rusesabagina. Backyard diplomatic moves by Qatar helped prevail upon the Rwandan government to free him. PHOTO | SIMON WOHLFAHRT | AFP


Backyard diplomatic moves by Qatar helped prevail upon the Rwandan government to free Hotel Rwanda ‘hero’ Paul Rusesabagina.

But the conditional freedom for the man portrayed in the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’ as a saviour of targeted Tutsi community during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 did not come for free.

According to details seen by The EastAfrican, Rusesabagina, 68, who was serving a 25-year sentence on terrorism-related crimes, was released only after personally seeking a presidential pardon in which he also “regretted” supporting a proscribed armed group against the Rwandan government.

Rwanda’s Ministry of Justice issued a statement in which it stated that Rusesabagina and a co-accused Callixte Nsabimana ‘Sankara’ would be freed after their sentences were commuted “after consideration of their requests for clemency”.

Commutation conditions

“Under Rwandan law, commutation of sentence does not extinguish the underlying conviction.


“If any individual benefitting from early release repeats offences of a similar nature, the commutation can be revoked and the remainder of the prison sentence will be served in accordance with the conditions specified in the presidential order,” it said.

Stephanie Nyombayire, spokesperson of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, had indicated the commutation of Rusesabagina, his co-accused and 18 others jailed for participating in similar crimes was as a “result of a shared desire to reset US-Rwanda relationship”.

Rusesabagina was sentenced in September 2021 over his ties with Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) whose armed wing, the Forces for National Liberation (FLN), had attacked Rwandan villages.

‘Wrongly detained’

He denied all the charges and refused to take part in the trial that he and his supporters called a political sham. The US, where he resided with his family, designated him as “wrongly detained", partly because of what it called the lack of fair trial guarantees. He had also been abducted to Rwanda while on a trip to Dubai, the US claimed.

His freedom was conditioned on the fact that he had to write a request seeking the presidential pardon as well as declare that the activities of the armed group were illegal and that he will not be taking part in attacks on Rwanda.

It took Qatar to help lobby for the US.

Dr Majed Al Ansari, the Advisor to the Prime Minister of Qatar and spokesperson of the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed Doha’s influence.

“We confirm the official Rwandan statements that Mr Paul Rusesabagina’s sentence will be commuted and he will be released in accordance with a presidential decree.

“The procedure for his transfer to the State of Qatar is underway, and he will then head to the USA,” he said.

Discussed at highest levels

This issue was discussed during meetings that brought together Qatari and Rwandan officials at the highest levels in the context of bridging views, he explained. Rwandan President Paul Kagame is said to have directly been involved in the talks.

“The State of Qatar has been able to play the role of a neutral mediator in many files and issues, which has made it a reliable international partner in resolving disputes through peaceful and diplomatic means and bringing the views of the various parties closer together.”

Rwanda and Qatar enjoy close ties, just as the gulf state enjoys ties with Washington. In the past, it had unsuccessfully tried to mediate between Rwanda and the DRC over accusations of rebel backing.

Rusesabagina said his advanced age meant he needed to be closer to his family. But it took lawyers of his family to also lobby US politicians to intervene. The family, once critical of Rwanda, however, toned down to pleading for his release.


Rusesabagina, once Kagame’s ally, became his critic. He didn’t even turn up at the screening of his film in Rwanda when it was released in 2004.

The trial judges said the two wings of the MRCD group were indistinguishable even though he argued he only sided with the political wing including funding its operations.

In his request for pardon, he said he regretted not being careful to ensure he didn’t support their violence. He argued a pardon could, in fact, be a good gesture to convince the other groups to choose legal ways of expressing grievances.