A law professor from Minnesota is not having a very good start to his summer break. As we previously mentioned in the Memorial Day Docket, a William Mitchell College of Law professor, Peter Erlinder, 62, traveled to Rwanda last month to help with the legal defense of Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader running against current-President Paul Kagame in the central African country’s August elections.
Erlinder, who previously defended a Rwandan accused of genocide during the International Criminal Tribunals in 2003, was arrested within a week of his arrival for denying that genocide occurred there. (If you need a history lesson here, watch Hotel Rwanda.) From the Associated Press:
Erlinder is accused of violating Rwanda’s laws against minimizing the genocide in which more than 500,000 Rwandans, the vast majority of them ethnic Tutsis, were massacred by Hutus in 100 days. Erlinder doesn’t deny massive violence happened but contends it’s inaccurate to blame just one side.
Erlinder could face up to 25 years in prison. His defenders say his arrest has more to do with his efforts on behalf of an opposition candidate than his views on genocide. But the Rwandan government has a different view:
[Rwandan Prosecutor General Martin] Ngoga’s office compared Rwanda’s laws to those in some European countries against denying the Holocaust.
“We understand that human rights activists schooled in the U.S. Bill of Rights may find this objectionable,” government spokeswoman Louise Mushikiwabo said in a statement. “But for Rwandans — schooled in the tragedy of the 1994 genocide and who long for peace — Mr. Erlinder’s arrest is an act of justice.”
How did Erlinder get into this mess? We corresponded with his daughter, who shed some light on the situation….
Here is what Peter Erlinder’s daughter, Sarah Erlinder — a 2009 graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School, who is currently doing legal services work in Arizona — told us:
ATL: How did your dad get involved in the Rwandan political process?
My dad started representing a client at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 2003. Through his representation of his client there and investigation into his case, my dad uncovered evidence and documents illustrating that the 1994 genocide was far more complicated than the commonly understood narrative. Much of what he discovered implicates current President Paul Kagame and his government for atrocities both in 1994 and many since then. As he discovered more and more to the story, he included that in his defense of his client, obviously, as well as began writing and speaking about what he’d found. He has made all of the supporting documents he has found available online. He traveled to Rwanda on May 23 to join the legal team of opposition presidential candidate, Victoire Ingabire, who was charged in April with “genocidal ideology.” He was invited to the team because of his work at the ICTR and background and knowledge about the Rwandan history and political situation.
ATL: Did he realize the risk he was taking by traveling there? Did he take any precautions?
He definitely knew that he was entering a risky situation, we discussed that and in the weeks before he left, he would forward me responses from the MN congressional delegation, the State Department and the US embassy in Kigali to try to assuage my fears. He contacted all of those people before he left, not because he planned for this to happen, but he knew it was risky and contacted them as a kind of insurance.
ATL: How much are you able to communicate with him now that he is in prison?
We haven’t been able to speak with him at all. His American attorney who is in Kigali told him [Tuesday] morning that during Tuesday’s interrogation, he asked the Rwandan interrogator to let my dad use the attorney’s cell phone to call his family. The interrogator refused because “he would call his wife, who would cry and call the press.” They pretty clearly do not want direct information about his situation reaching the outside. We are in touch with his legal team who are now able to see him regularly and give us updates…. but I’d really like to talk to him.
ATL: What can be done to defend him?
Right now his legal team is made up of one American attorney, two Kenyan attorneys and a local Rwandan attorney. They’ve all now been given proper credentials to be able to act as his attorneys. They are all also friends and colleagues of his from both his case at the ICTR and elsewhere. As his family, we’re been asking people to help pressure the State Department to act by both calling them directly and also calling their own congressional delegation and asking for them to pressure the State Department. We are also asking people to contact the United Nations to come to the aid of someone they hired to provide zealous representation to a defendant at the ICTR and is now being jailed because of his speech in his client’s defense. People have been very creative in who they can reach out to, so more the more ideas the better.
Erlinder was hospitalized briefly on Monday after falling ill during an interrogation. His wife is trying to send him blood pressure medicine. Meanwhile, the media are buzzing about Erlinder’s imprisonment. Here is a linkwrap:
The strange case of Peter Erlinder [Star Tribune]
An American Lawyer in Rwanda [Wall Street Journal]
US lawyer held in Rwanda critical of its president [Associated Press]
U.S. Law Professor Arrested in Rwanda [International Law Prof Blog]
An Open Letter to Human Rights Colleagues Concerned About Darfur…and Iraq [SACIS]
Rwanda arrests U.S. lawyer for genocide denial [Reuters]