(Kigali) Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda and is a fierce opponent of President Paul Kagame, was released on Friday after the government announced it had commuted his 25-year sentence for “terrorism”.

The fierce opponent of President Paul Kagame, who has Belgian citizenship and permanently resides in the United States, was handed over to the Qatari ambassador before his return to the United States, an American official has announced.

The opponent “is at the Qatari ambassador’s residence,” the official said. Washington is “grateful” to Rwanda for releasing him, said US Foreign Minister Antony Blinken.

Belgium also welcomed “the decision of the Rwandan government to grant Paul Rusesabagina a remission”. “We hope he will be reunited with his family soon,” Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib said in a statement.

The conviction of Mr. Rusesabagina, dating from September 2021, had aroused international reprobation and defenders of rights.

“Paul Rusesabagina and [his co-defendant] Callixte Nsabimana had their prison sentences commuted by presidential order, after consideration of their requests for clemency,” Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told AFP.

The sentences of 18 other people for terrorism also had their sentences commuted, she added. According to a government source who requested anonymity, the other detainees are expected to be released on Saturday.

Ms. Makolo clarified that Rwanda “notes the constructive role of the US government in creating the conditions for dialogue on this issue, as well as the facilitation provided by Qatar”.

But she added that “no one should be under any illusions about what that means, because there is a consensus that serious crimes have been committed, for which they have been convicted.”

This case has long been a source of contention between Kigali and Washington. In May 2022, Washington said he was “unjustly detained” by Rwandan justice and Mr. Kagame replied that the United States could not “intimidate” him into releasing him.

The move “is the result of a shared desire to reset US/Rwanda relations,” the president’s press secretary, Stephanie Nyombayire, said on Twitter.

According to a senior US official who spoke on condition of anonymity, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Kigali in August “played a key role in the prospect of Paul’s eventual release.”

Stéphanie Nyombayire for her part underlined that “the close relations between Rwanda and Qatar have been key”.

Talks on the opponent’s release had started at the end of 2022 and a breakthrough occurred last week during discussions between President Kagame and the Emir of Qatar, said a source familiar with the matter.

Kigali’s announcement comes nearly two weeks after President Kagame indicated during a visit to Qatar that “discussions” were underway regarding Mr Rusesabagina’s imprisonment.

Supporters of the opponent believe that his trial was a sham marked by irregularities. And his family had alerted to the declining state of health of the 68-year-old man.

Mr. Rusesabagina was detained for 939 days, according to the website Free Rusesabagina (Free Rusesabagina).

Paul Rusesabagina was made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda, released in 2004, which tells how this moderate Hutu who ran the Hotel des Mille Collines in the Rwandan capital saved more than 1000 people during the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994.

Opposing Paul Kagame for more than 20 years, whom he accused of authoritarianism and fueling anti-Hutu sentiment, Rusesabagina used his Hollywood fame to give a global echo to his positions.

His tirades against Mr. Kagame have earned him treatment as an enemy of the state.

Human rights advocates accuse Rwanda — ruled with an iron fist by Mr. Kagame since the end of the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people were killed — of suppressing freedom of expression and opposition.

Mr. Rusesabagina had lived in exile in the United States and Belgium since 1996, before being arrested in Kigali in 2020 in murky circumstances when he got off a plane he thought was bound for Burundi.

“His release would conclude a case that underscored Rwanda’s blatant disregard for international standards,” Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director for Human Rights Watch, told AFP earlier in the day.

The opponent was tried from February to July 2021 on nine counts, including that of “terrorism”, for attacks carried out by the FLN, an organization classified as terrorist by Kigali, which killed nine people in 2018 and 2019.

Paul Rusesabagina admitted to having participated in the founding in 2017 of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), of which the FLN is considered the armed wing, but he has always denied any involvement in the attacks.