An American Prisoner in Rwanda

erlinder.jpgEarlier this week I linked to some news about the American law professor Peter Erlinder, who while working in defense of a political prisoner and opposition leader in Rwanda was himself jailed on a specious charge of denying the 1994 genocide.  His situation appears to be rapidly worsening, as now the Rwandan authorities have claimed that he made an attempt on his own life by taking pills, and are now set to charge with the crime of attempted suicide.  However the defense team for Erlinder was never informed about the attempted suicide, and his brother has called this claim “ridiculous.”  Other sources are reporting that he took a small overdose in order to get moved from the prison cell to a hospital.  Under these kinds of atrocious conditions, there are concerns that Erlinder could be facing abuse from the Rwandan prison authorities. 

The family of Erlinder, who teaches at the William Mitchell College ofLaw in St. Paul, Minnesota, is in Washington today in meetings with theState Department, according to a report by MPR. Following the meeting, PJ Crowley, State Department spokesman, has said that the United Stateswillnow formally call upon the government of Paul Kagame to releaseErlinder and sent him back home.  There is no word as of yet to theresponse of the Rwandan authorities.

A press releasefrom the family and defense team contains a variety of statements ofsupport.  “Professor Erlinder has been acting in the best traditionof the legalprofession and has been a vigorous advocate in his representation of hisclients. There can be no justice for anyone if the state can silencelawyers for representing defendants it dislikes,” said DavidGespass, president of the National Lawyers Guild.

Jeanne Mirer, president of the International Association of DemocraticLawyers, also added urgency to Erlinder’s release:  “TheInternational Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) is outragedat the arrest of Peter Erlinder in Rwanda. This arrest violates therights and privileges of lawyers in discharging their professionalresponsibilities, constitutes a willful obstruction of the judicialprocess and is in gross violation of the rights of defense of an accusedperson.

An editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press also defends Erlinder, arguing that “Rwanda need not deny its horrific history to respectthe role of advocates. They need noisy fighters like Peter Erlinder tobuild a credible judicial system. They must release him and show theworld that Rwanda can fight for the terrible truth of 1994 in an opencourtroom.

Before traveling to Rwanda last week, Peter Erlinder apparently made contact with U.S. and U.N. representatives in an attempt to guarantee his safety.  Although he is deeply experienced in the region, and has participated in a number of war crimes trials on behalf of various defendants, the purpose of his trip this time was to defend client Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, an opposition leader who had returned to Rwanda after years in exile in the Netherlands, only to be jailed by the Kagame government.  In February Ingabire was the victim of armed attacks, harassment, and persecution after making comments about the killings of Hutu people during the 1994 genocide, which conflicted with the government’s narrative.

There appears to be few limits to the actions the Rwandan government is willing to take against the opposition as well as anyone who defends their legal rights.  On May 21, Ingabire was arrested and jailed.  On May 28th, Erlinder was arrested and jailed.  And now, the Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga is going after Erlinder’s lawyer, Kurt Kerns, warning him that he too may also land himself in jail for insulting the police.  Kerns had apparently referred to the arresting officers of Erlinder as “young punks” in an email.

The Erlinder case casts a dark shadow over the miracle of Rwanda’s recovery over the past decade, which went from a genocidal war zone toward prosperity and stability under the Kagame administration.  However the costs of this stability have been very high, with Kagame showing very little tolerance for political opposition or debate over the acts committed by either side during the 1994 genocide (Erlinder’s work in this area, of course, has been deeply controversial – the suggestion that innocent Hutus also suffered mass executions by the Tutsis is a taboo subject).  The New York Times has carried a series of reports documenting the transformation of Rwanda into an authoritarian police state, thousands of boys and young men are swept off the streets and put into camps allegedly to engender patriotism and docility.

In an article published in International Affairs Review of George Washington University, Editor-In-Chief James Turitto compares the relatively good reputation of the Kagame government among U.S. officials against the “dark side” of his repressive policies.  Turitto argues that U.S. support is partly motivated by the guilt over the world’s failure to react when the Tutsis suffered somewhere near 800,000 murders (Kagame was a Tutsi rebel leader), as well as the open economic policies which have benefited many U.S. companies.  He also urges a rethink:  “Legitimating Kagame’s authoritarian political policies by trumpeting hisliberal economic policies will lead to further consolidation of hisauthority. Africa’s shining star has a devious dark side. The Obamaadministration must target its foreign assistance to push back againstKagame.

We will continue to follow this case closely, and encourage anyone with further information to get in touch.