Rwanda releases U.S. lawyer Erlinder

Progressive U.S. lawyer Peter Erlinder has been freed from jail in Rwanda and may be returning to the United States within the next few days.

Erlinder was detained on May 28 on charges of “genocide ideology,” which in the central African nation carries a sentence of up to 27 years in jail. Erlinder was hospitalized several times during detention as his health deteriorated. At one point, the Rwandan government claimed he attempted suicide.

The treatment of Erlinder drew international condemnation of Rwanda, where intimidation and harassment of political opponents, usually justified by accusations of genocide denial by the government, is well-documented by human rights groups.

Nearly one million Rwandans were massacred and millions more displaced in the 1994 genocide which also led to the seizure of power by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) whose leader, Paul Kagame, continues to rule Rwanda with an iron fist.

Erlinder is leader of defense lawyers representing those standing trial for the genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania. He also is a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul and a former president of the National Lawyers Guild. Erlinder has a stellar record of taking on death penalty, police misconduct and terrorism cases – what the mainstream media often refers to as “unpopular cases.”

At the Arusha tribunal, he is defending a senior Rwandan army officer accused of directing death squads. The Rwandan government argues that Erlinder’s writings and speeches could “instigate riots” and “civil disobediences.” It claims Erlinder is not being charged because of his work at the tribunal, but most observers are skeptical of that assertion.

The ICTR sent a letter to Rwandan government officials earlier this week reminding them that as a lawyer of the court Erlinder enjoys “immunity from legal process of every kind” and therefore must be released. The letter also pointed out that the Rwandan prosecutor at Erlinder’s hearing on June 7, at which he was denied bail, quoted Erlinder’s statements at the tribunal as evidence against him. 

In solidarity, 11 defense lawyers in Arusha requested that the ICTR postpone their cases. One lawyer was held in contempt and could face years in jail for unilaterally withdrawing from the court. A majority of Erlinder’s colleagues also signed a petition saying they would not work unless their security was guaranteed.

While activists are relieved by the news of Erlinder’s release, they are demanding that Rwanda drop all charges against him. As current NLG president David Gespass explained, “Peter’s release and, we trust, his return home are victories we will savor, but they will remain incomplete until all charges are dismissed and the Rwandan government provides assurances its unlawful conduct will not be repeated, either against Peter or any other ICTR defense counsel.”

Rwandan prosecutors are planning to proceed with the case against Erlinder. His Rwandan defense lawyers said Erlinder is willing to return to Rwanda if needed.

Besides his work with the ICTR, Erlinder is representing Rwanda’s leading opposition presidential candidate, Victoire Ingabire, who returned to Rwanda earlier this year after 16 years of exile in the Netherlands. Her passport has been seized by the government and she is banned from traveling outside the capital of Kigali.

Ingabire, the leader of United Democratic Forces, stands accused of Orwelian crimes such as being a “genocide negationist” and, like Erlinder, spreading “genocide ideology.” She faces 20 years or more in prison if she is found guilty. The charges were sparked by Ingabire’s suggestion that atrocities were committed by the ruling party. She also questioned what she believed to be the one-sided representation of the genocide by the government.

In the midst of an economic and political crisis in Rwanda, the genocide was carried out by Hutus against Tutsis as well as many other Hutu. The media usually refers to those Hutu victims as “moderates” in contrast to the Hutu extremists of the then-ruling party and the militias known as the Interahamwe. In the midst of this slaughter, the Tutsi-dominated RPF, supported by neighboring Uganda, took power and the Hutu militias fled into neighboring Congo.

Kagame’s regime is dominated by Tutsis, who make up a minority in both Rwanda and neighboring Burundi, which shares a history of mass killings. As with many conflicts in Africa, the origins of the Rwandan genocide can be traced back to European colonial rule when first the Germans, and then with even more diligence the Belgians, forcibly labeled Rwandans either “Hutu” or “Tutsi.” Steeped in the racist concepts of the colonial era, they portrayed the Tutsi monarchy as more “noble” and “civilized” than the Hutu commoners. While in the past Hutu and Tutsi were malleable identities correlating to feudalistic economic and political relations, they became fixed ethnic categories during colonialism setting the stage for political tensions at independence in 1962 and ever since.

It is widely believed Kagame has a personal animosity towards Erlinder. In April, Erlinder helped file a lawsuit in Oklahoma accusing the Rwandan president of sparking the genocide by ordering the deaths of the former presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. The mass killings began right after their plane was shot down by rockets in April 1994 and conflicting theories about who was responsible for their assassination abound. The Rwandan government denies the accusation, maintaining that it was the Hutu planners and organizers of the genocidal killings who murdered the presidents.

Kagame and other Rwandan officials also were accused in 2006 by a French prosecutor of carrying out the attack. Rwanda in turn accused France of complacency because of its backing of the previous Hutu-dominated government. In a visit to Rwanda in February, French President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to mend relations saying his country had made serious mistakes over the genocide.

Kagame’s government has not been fully supportive of the ICTR, arguing that the victims of the genocide should try those responsible without foreign involvement. Indeed, his regime set up so-called traditional community courts, known as gacacas, throughout the country to try Rwandans accused of genocide. Twenty-seven senior officials have been convicted at the Arusha tribunal, but the Rwandan government has criticized the slow pace of the proceedings and the fact that some suspects have been acquitted. The work of the ICTR nearly came to a standstill in 2002 when the court suggested it may investigate crimes against humanity committed by Kagame’s RPF. In protest, Rwanda stopped sending witnesses to Arusha, forcing the court to relent.

Despite numerous reports by human rights organizations criticizing the Rwandan government, Kagame remains a close ally of the West, particularly the United States, and the recipient of favorable coverage in the capitalist media. Human rights groups assert the government restricts news, imprisons journalists, and attacks political opponents. In this climate of intimidation and harassment, Rwandans are expected to vote in presidential elections scheduled for August 9.

Photo: Peter Erlinder via RNW


Dennis Laumann
Dennis Laumann

Dennis Laumann is a Professor of African History at The University of Memphis. His publications include Colonial Africa, 1994-1994, Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is a member of United Campus Workers-CWA.