This story has been updated.
Paul Rusesabagina, the inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda who later became a San Antonio resident, was released from a Rwandan prison over the weekend after spending more than two and a half years in government custody, friends close to the family confirmed Monday.
San Antonio-based friends of Rusesabagina expressed joy and relief at the news of his release. Rusesabagina, who is currently in Qatar, is expected to return to San Antonio within the next couple days.
Rusesabagina, 68, has been detained in Rwanda since August 2020 after his plane flew to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, instead of going to Burundi, a neighboring country that he thought he was traveling to. Rusesabagina was arrested on arrival and has been imprisoned since then. After a trial that supporters denounced as a politically motivated show trial, he was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment on terrorism charges.
The years waiting for his release have been long and arduous, said Kathleen Tobin Krueger, who has known Rusesabagina and his family for decades. Tobin Krueger’s late husband, U.S. Sen. Bob Krueger, served as U.S. ambassador to Burundi, which shares a border with Rwanda, from 1994 to 1995.
“I’ve been crying and laughing and crying and laughing,” she told the San Antonio Report Friday. “It reminds me of a quote by Nelson Mandela when he said, ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done.’
“I’ve been clinging to that phrase throughout these last two years while knowing he was kidnapped, tortured, held in solitary confinement and denied his medications.”
Rusesabagina rose to international fame after his 1994 efforts to save more than 1,200 fellow Rwandans from genocide inspired the 2004 Oscar-nominated film Hotel Rwanda. After his position as a political opponent of Rwandan leader Paul Kagame caused Rusesabagina to leave the African nation in 1996, he lived in Belgium, then moved to San Antonio in 2009, splitting his time between the U.S. and the Belgian capital of Brussels. His son, Tresor, attended St. Mary’s University and graduated in 2022.
According to the Associated Press, Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told reporters Friday that Paul Rusesabagina’s 25-year sentence was commuted by presidential order after a request for clemency. Under Rwandan law, a commutation doesn’t “extinguish” the conviction, she added.
During his captivity, elected leaders and others in San Antonio pressed for his release. St. Mary’s classmates of Tresor Rusesabagina made a class project of efforts to write to local Congressmen, and they called on Texans of faith to contact their senators and representatives in Congress to urge President Joe Biden’s administration to demand Rusesabagina’s release.
St. Mary’s University Professor Bill Israel, who remains close to Tresor Rusesabagina, said he felt U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) should get much of the credit for the release since he was been working on it for several years, ever since Israel’s class wrote to the congressman.
In a statement issued Friday, Castro called Rusesabagina a hero and called his detention unjust.
“Together with his family, friends, and supporters around the world, I am overjoyed to hear the news of his impending release and look forward to his safe return,” Castro said.
Israel added however that he will not breathe a sigh of relief until Rusesabagina is safely back in the United States, where he is a legal permanent resident.
“It’s been an amazing story, a nerve-wracking story,” Israel said. “… I won’t believe it until I see him in the streets of San Antonio.”
Israel helped family members and supporters stage a rally in downtown San Antonio in October 2021 to bring attention to the case. Representatives from the Chicago-based Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation led the event to raise funds for legal efforts to free him.
Last year, Rusesabagina’s family filed a $400 million lawsuit in Washington, D.C., against the Rwandan government over his capture and detainment.
Tobin Krueger said she and Paul’s family members were grateful to the U.S. leaders who helped make his release happen, especially Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who “became personally involved to help Paul’s release become a reality,” she said. She also thanked European Union ambassadors abroad who helped push for his release.
Just months before he was apprehended by the Rwandan government, Rusesabagina shared his story of surviving the genocide in Rwanda as the keynote speaker for Dreamweek, an ideas summit held annually in San Antonio.
“I never say I saved people,” he said in the January 2020 speech. “But I helped people survive. Hôtel des Mille Collines had 1,268 displaced refugees in my hotel. All of them survived. None of them were beaten. None of them were killed. Go ahead and tell me another place in the country where everybody was saved from beginning to end.”