American lawyer jailed in Rwanda for giving legal counsel to Opposition leader

An American lawyer has pleaded not guilty to charges of denying Rwanda’s 1994 genocide in a court in Kigali on Friday. Peter Erlinder was also charged with publishing articles that threaten national stability in a five hour hearing in the Rwandan capital. Erlinder is the lead defence lawyer at the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda held in Arusha, Tanzania. Erlinder said he believes the charges arise as a misunderstanding however he could face 25 years in prison if convicted.

The trial is no “misunderstanding”, it is political. Erlinder arrived in Kigali last month to defend opposition leader Victoire Umuhoza Ingabire, charged with promoting genocide ideology. Ingabire is the chair of the Unified Democratic Forces. She returned to Rwanda in January, after 16 years in exile in the Netherlands, to contest the presidential election against dictator Paul Kagame in August. Kagame, who has ruled Rwanda since 1995, threw Ingabire in jail on charges of “association with a terrorist group; propagating genocide ideology; negationism and ethnic divisionism”. She is now out on bail with her passport seized and instructions not to talk to the media.

This was a tactic to ensure Ingabire would not be able to contest the election. She enlisted Erlinder to fight the charges. The 62-year-old lawyer is a distinguished jurist and a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota before working for the ICTR. In his defence statements at Arusha, Erlinder disputed the standard characterisation of the genocide as Hutus deliberately slaughtering innocent Tutsis. He said the violence was more spontaneous and possibly the result of Tutsi rebels killing Hutu civilians. These provocative statements outside their courtroom context made him an ideal candidate for “propagating genocide ideology”. He arrived in Kigali on 23 May and was arrested five days later. Martin Ngoga, Rwanda’s prosecutor general said it did not matter Erlinder made the offensive remarks abroad.

Erlinder requested bail to return to the US and receive treatment for injuries. He said he had not been maltreated but had also not had contact with family members or his doctor. On Wednesday, he was hospitalised after police said he had attempted suicide by taking dozens of pills. His family denied the suicide attempt claim. On Thursday, the US State Dept called for his humanitarian release. “We are pressing the Rwandan government to resolve this case quickly, and we would like to see him released on compassionate grounds,” Philip Crowley, a state department spokesman, said.

The criticism of Rwanda is deliberately gentle. The country is a close American ally that has received hundreds of millions of dollars of aid despite human rights violations in the months leading up to elections in August. No subject is touchier than the genocide and the US has covered up evidence Kagame and his Tutsi army were almost as culpable as the Hutu Power group that killed over half a million Tutsis between April and June 1994. In recent years, thousands of Rwandans have been charged with the vaguely worded genocide ideology, which criminalises any non-government version of events in 1994. As the New York Times says, Erlinder’s case is the first time Rwanda has leveled these charges against a Westerner.

Writing in MR Zine, American academics Edward Herman and David Peterson said Erlinder’s arrest revealed much about a regime routinely sanitised in Western intellectual life and media coverage. They remind readers Kagame does not like elections and has avoided and rigged them. Kagame did the same thing before the last election in 2003. “Kagame’s main rival at the time, a Hutu and former President Pasteur Bizimungu, was arrested and charged with ‘divisionism,’ a kind of Kagame-speak that means to provide political choices other than the one-party Kagame dictatorship,” wrote Herman and Peterson. Hopefully, he has gone too far in using that Kafkaesque gimmick against Peter Erlinder, a notable fighter against genocide and genocide denial.


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