I’ve been closely following the horrific persecution of lawyer Peter Erlinder, an American political prisoner of the Rwandan government who was detained under false charges on May 28th, just one week after his client, the opposition leader Victoire Ingabire herself was jailed. Despite a formal request from the U.S. State Department that Rwanda immediately release Erlinder, things have only gotten worse, as the judge has rejected all motions for bail, extended his remand for another 30 days, while Erlinder’s own defense attorney has been chased from the country fearing his own detention.
Paul Rusesabagina, another Rwandan opposition figure in exile with whom I have worked closely with in the past (he’s also the inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda), has come out in support of Erlinder’s immediate release. This week he is being interviewed as part of CNN’s African Voices, where he is quoted on the case: “Professor Peter Erlinder was doing his job as a lawyer. In a civilsociety that is not grounds for arrest. If President Kagame considersRwanda a democracy, he must release Professor Erlinder immediately.” Rusesabagina added, “Rwanda is a dormant volcano that might erupt anytime. The rulinggovernment has created a tiny group of elites that has taken overeverything.“
I have had a series of discussions with friends and colleagues PeterErlinder who are deeply fearful of his ability to survive in his presentconditions without proper care and medication. It is clear from histreatment and the spurious nature of the charges (genocide ideology)that this is a focused campaign of persecution undertaken by thegovernment of Paul Kagame against its opponents and anyone brave enoughto defend their basic rights. Although local congressionalrepresentatives from Minnesota aretaking action to bring forward a resolution, the silence so farfrom President Barack Obama, a former law professor himself, isdeafening.
This attack against Erlinder has provoked a widespread sense of fear andvulnerability on behalf of lawyers who participate in the InternationalCriminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR), established by the United Nationsin 1994. Members of the International Criminal Bar, of which Erlinderis a member, have issued a strong condemnation of Rwanda’s conduct,demanding the immediate release of the prisoner. “How caninternational criminal courts operate effectively if defence lawyers areat risk of being arrested for what they say on behalf of their clients?,”saidAmanda Pinto of the ICB. “This affects all defence lawyers atthe ICTR, but the issues are potentially the same for defence counselanywhere in the international forum.“
Defense lawyers to the ICTR have suffered a number of attacks in oneform or another over the years, and the jailing of Erlinder sheds lightonto the extraordinary risks these people take. If the UN is going toestablish tribunals such as the ICTR, it is incumbent upon them toprovide protection to the legal counsel brave enough to participate inthese international systems, and not allow the kind of intimidation,harassment, and attacks from governments such as Kagame’s totalitarianRwanda.
I urge all colleagues involved in the international legal community to closely follow this case, and urge discussion of possible advocacy efforts among your communities.