Rwanda did not succumb to pressure from the United State of America in the lead up to the presidential pardon through which the sentences of Paul Rusesabagina and 19 of his co-accused were commuted and released from prison.
Rusesabagina, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison after he was found guilty of terror-related crimes, was released on Friday evening after a cabinet meeting chaired by President Paul Kagame approved a presidential decree granting clemency to the 20 individuals, who were part of the FLN trial.
Upon release, Rusesabagina stayed at the residence of the Ambassador of Qatar to Rwanda before traveling to Doha on Monday morning, where he will stay until Wednesday when he travels to the US to unite with his family.
In an interview with KT Press, the Deputy Government Spokesperson, Alain Mukuralinda, dismissed claims that Rusesabagina was released as a result of pressure from the U.S, reiterating that the development was a part of lengthy and cordial discussions between Rwanda, the U.S and Qatar as a mediator.
“If it was an issue of pressure, he would have been released at the time he was arrested. It didn’t have to wait for nearly three years. It is true that the U.S on several occasions raised the matter of his detention and conviction with Rwanda, as any country does when its citizen or resident is held in another country,”
“All countries do that, they will write and engage through diplomatic channels when a citizen or resident of that country is held in another country. There is nothing unusual. You can call it pressure if you wish but these are normal negotiations,” Mukuralinda said.
He pointed out that if it was a result of pressure, he would have been released way before the trial, but the trial was concluded and the convicts began serving their sentences before the negotiations started.
“If you notice the language in the statements that came from the US, from the Senator to the Secretary of State and President Biden, you realise that there is nothing suggesting that it was pressure, but rather they were commending the results of the negotiations between the countries and also recognised the legal procedures,”
“Also if one wants to look at how the process happened, it started with Rusesabagina writing, recognising and regretting his actions and making commitments in the letter addressed to the President of the Republic, which has been made public for all to see,” Mukuralinda said.
He pointed out that if it was indeed pressure or the US ordering Rwanda to release him, the processes that precede a presidential pardon wouldn’t have been followed.
“All the legal procedures were followed. The letter dates back to October 2022. Did anybody put him under pressure to write it? He initiated the process then a number of factors were looked at. How about those he was convicted with? How about them? All these factors came into play,” he said, adding that more than 350 people benefited from the presidential pardon.
The Deputy Government Spokesperson said that people who allege that Rwanda succumbed to pressure do not understand how diplomacy or foreign policy works because today, while some countries are bigger than others in terms of size and economy, no country can prevail over the sovereignty of another.
“Countries can only negotiate about existing issues with a common understanding of finding a solution. That should not be interpreted as pressure,” Mukuralinda said.
US recognised Rusesabagina’s role
Mukuralinda said that for the first time, the US recognised that indeed Rusesabagina was involved in the activities he was accused of, going by the language and tone of the subsequent statements, unlike before where they were stuck on the argument of wrongful detention.
He said that the change of heart and tone means that the US understood Rwanda’s legitimate concerns but the two countries agreed to find a more amicable way to resolve the issue, with the help of Qatar as a mediator.
Explaining Qatar’s role, Mukuralinda said that Qatar came in as a friend of both Rwanda and U.S and the role of the middle eastern country was pivotal in breaking the ice.
“When you realise that two of your friends have a problem causing friction between them, sometimes you don’t even have to wait to be told to do something. You can bring these friends together, look at all sides of the coin and then come up with suggestions of how to resolve that situation,”
“That is what Qatar did. They don’t need to have any other interests apart from ensuring that the two friends make up. As we speak today, we were all able to make a breakthrough and it was a win-win for all parties involved,” Mukuralinda said.
He pointed out that Rwanda did not have to expect anything in return from the US, apart from ensuring that the issue that was standing between two countries was resolved and relations between the two countries reset back to where they were before.
Mukuralinda said that such arrangements between countries to exchange convicts or detainees are normal. They happen between archenemies such as the US and Russia or Israel and Palestine and whenever such exchanges happen, it shouldn’t be seen as though there is pressure, money or other favours involved.
On Rusesabagina resuming political activities
Asked if the Rwandan Government is worried that Rusesabagina would resume his political activities upon arriving in the US, Mukuralinda said that there were commitments all parties made, including Rusesabagina, and it would be up to him to live up to his word and do as promised.
He however said that as explained, commutation of a sentence does not negate the conviction earlier given by courts and can be revoked when the pardoned individual repeats the same crimes.
“In his own words, he said that when released, he intends to go back to the U.S to spend more time with his family, in quiet reflection, and put behind political activities. As someone who was released on humanitarian grounds, we believe that is what he will do,”
“But in the event of anything, the law is very clear about recidivism and this does not apply only to Rusesabagina but to all people who receive a presidential pardon. You are expected to understand and appreciate the gesture, and do the right thing,” he said.
Regarding the plight of victims of the attacks of National Liberation Front (FLN), the armed wing of the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) coalition, which Rusesabagina was the leader, Mukuralinda said that as far as the government is concerned, there is no issue so far but processes to ensure that they are compensated will be followed.
“At least going by what their lawyer has said, there is no problem so far. The victims understood this process and its importance. Anything regarding compensation will be followed up later, now that the convicted persons are out,”
“The court pronounced itself on who was to compensate who with what, the records are available. Now people can go back and see who is supposed to pay what, to who? What properties does this person have? Do they have the means to pay the damages or not? Do they have properties here or not?” Mukuralinda explained.
He said that this applies to Rusesabagina and his co-accused, who were ordered by court to pay damages to the victims of the attacks which took place between 2018 and 2019, in the south western part of the country, claiming at least nine lives, injuring scores and damaging property.
In his letter, Rusesabagina regretted the actions of the armed group and said that using violent means to access political power shouldn’t have been an option. Mukuralinda said that following up on compensation of victims is even easier when the convicts are out.
“Assuming that you approached these people when they were in prison and you told them ‘hey, you have damages to pay’, they would say, we are here, we are not working or we can’t access our assets, what do you want us to do?”
“Now that they are out, those charged with execution of court orders can now follow up and even write to authorities in other countries to inform them that these people have an obligation to meet,” Mukuralinda said, adding that the government would ensure that the victims are not the losers in all this.
Mukuralinda refuted claims that Rwanda was promised something in return if Rusesabagina is released, pointing out that the biggest outcome is that relations between Rwanda and the US are now in a good place.