'Hotel Rwanda' hero's release came from desire to end diplomatic sore point

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KIGALI, March 25 (Reuters) - The release of Paul Rusesabagina from a Rwandan prison late on Friday was the result of months of negotiations between Washington and Kigali, with both eager to draw a line under what they described as an "irritant" to their relationship.

Two U.S. officials - one from President Joe Biden's administration and a Congressional aide - said no concrete concessions were made to secure the release of Rusesabagina, a U.S. permanent resident made famous by the 2004 film 'Hotel Rwanda,' about his role saving Tutsis during the 1994 genocide.

He was detained in 2019 and subsequently convicted on eight terrorism charges stemming from his leadership role in the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), whose armed wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN), has attacked Rwanda.

His detention strained relations between the two countries. The U.S. has said Rusesabagina was unlawfully detained, while Rwanda has bristled at the criticism, saying it would not be intimidated.

The U.S. allocated more than $147 million in foreign assistance to Rwanda in 2021, making it Rwanda's largest bilateral donor.

"The U.S. government made clear to the ... Rwandans that this would remain a bilateral irritant until we could reach a mutually satisfactory resolution," the Biden administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Yolande Makolo, a spokeswoman for the Rwandan government, said the case was "an irritant in both directions."

"After a few false starts, progress started to be made precisely when the U.S. abandoned the 'pressure' and threats approach, and decided to engage with Rwanda on the substance of the matter and its context – political violence by armed groups and the security of Rwandans," she told Reuters.

When asked how the U.S. had engaged on these issues, Makolo pointed to a statement issued by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken after Rusesabagina's release, emphasising that political change in Rwanda should only come through peaceful means.

The U.S. Congressional aide, who also asked not to be named, said the negotiations were advanced by moves from Washington and Rusesabagina himself to acknowledge Rwanda's point of view.

Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood movie about Rwanda's 1994 genocide, walks in handcuffs to a courtroom in Kigali, Rwanda February 26, 2021. REUTERS/Clement Uwiringiyimana/File Photo

Particularly helpful, the aide said, was a letter Rusesabagina wrote to Rwandan President Paul Kagame in October, in which he expressed regret at not ensuring that MRCD members refrained from violence. The Rwandan government released it on Friday.

MOBILIZING THE EXECUTIVE

Before the talks gained momentum, a major challenge for the Rusesabagina family and members of Congress advocating for his release was mobilizing the full capacity of the Executive branch, the aide said.

As a Belgian citizen of Rwandan origin with U.S. residency, Rusesabagina's case did not "fit neatly in a box," the aide said.

Momentum picked up over the past year as the Biden administration made a determination in May 2022 that Rusesabagina had been wrongfully detained.

Blinken met Kagame during a visit to Rwanda in August, where U.S. officials said the case was discussed extensively. Another opportunity for discussions came during the U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington in December.

Yet Kigali continued to take a hard line, with Kagame suggesting on the sidelines of the December summit that only an invasion of Rwanda could force Rusesabagina's release.

The first major public sign of softening came in an interview with Semafor less than two weeks ago, when Kagame said there were discussions about "resolving" the case.

Then on Friday came the announcement that Rusesabagina's sentence had been commuted. He was moved hours later from Nyarugenge Prison to the embassy of Qatar.

He will remain in Rwanda for a couple of days before travelling to Doha and then to the United States, U.S. officials said.

Editing by Elias Biryabarema and Bernadette Baum

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Thomson Reuters

West & Central Africa correspondent investigating human rights abuses, conflict and corruption as well as regional commodities production, epidemic diseases and the environment, previously based in Kinshasa, Abidjan and Cairo.