updated 4/6/2007 1:49:03 PM ET 2007-04-06T17:49:03

Rwanda’s first post-genocide leader walked free from prison Friday after a surprise presidential pardon of his convictions that included inciting ethnic tension.

Pasteur Bizimungu was freed after serving two years of a 15-year term as an act of clemency by President Paul Kagame to build national unity, an official said. His release came on the 13th anniversary of the start of the 1994 genocide in which 500,000 were killed.

“It’s a good gesture, it’s done in good faith, it’s done for the good,” Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama told The Associated Press by telephone from the Rwandan capital, Kigali. About 9,000 people were released last year, he said.

Karugarama said Bizimungu’s release was the first full presidential pardon Kagame has given. He said he did not know Kagame’s reasons for the pardon.

“I should imagine that the president, in exercising his discretion, is part of the forgiving process,” he said. “It’s all part of a large, wide reconstruction and reconciliation.”

He added that he believed Bizimungu returned to his home in Kigali after his release. Bizimungu could not be reached for comment.

His lawyer, Jeanbosco Kazenge, said his client had gone home to be with his family. “He’s fine, he’s happy,” he said from Kigali.

Bizimungu was convicted in 2004 for treason, threatening national security, corruption and encouraging ethnic divisions in the country.

A member of Rwanda’s Hutu majority, Bizimungu became president in 1994 after Tutsi-led rebels ended the genocide and set up a government of national unity. More than a half-million people, most of them minority Tutsis, were killed by Hutu militia groups during the 100-day slaughter.

He resigned in March 2000 after disagreements with Kagame over the prosecution of ministers accused of corruption and mismanagement. He was arrested in 2002, and in 2004 was sentenced by Rwanda’s High Court to 10 years in prison.

In 2006, the nation’s Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s acquittal on a treason charge and sentenced Bizimungu to another five years in prison for embezzling $60,000 intended for victims of the genocide.

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