Rwandan judge charges US professor with denying Rwanda’s genocide

Saturday, June 5, 2010

US law professor charged in Rwandan court

KIGALI, Rwanda — A Rwandan judge has charged a U.S. lawyer with denying Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and publishing articles that threaten the country’s security.

Peter Erlinder pleaded not guilty to the charges during a five-hour court hearing late Friday in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

“It is the first time I have come to know that my obscure publications back in America were that bad and could amount to genocide denial,” Erlinder told the court. He suggested it may be a case of misinterpretation or misunderstanding.

If convicted, he faces up to 25 years in prison. Erlinder was upset when the judge said he will decide on Monday whether to grant bail.

Erlinder — a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota — has a reputation for taking on difficult, often unpopular defendants and causes. A past president of the progressive National Lawyers Guild, Erlinder leads a group of defense lawyers at the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which is trying the alleged leaders of the 1994 genocide.

The genocide claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The massacres ended when mostly Tutsi rebels led by President Paul Kagame defeated the mostly Hutu extremist perpetrators.

Erlinder said Kagame’s party might dispute his writings, but “not all Rwandans.”

He said he had ignored warnings from his tribunal colleagues not to travel to Rwanda, where he had spent several days helping opposition leader Victoire Ingabire in her presidential election challenge before his May 28 arrest.

“I believed the country has grown democratically, but if I am detained and prosecuted, my case will be confirm what is being said out there,” Erlinder said.

Appearing weak in court, Erlinder asked to be granted bail so he could return home for treatment, and promised to comply with any conditions the court sets.

He said he hadn’t been mistreated, but also had not had contact with anyone while in Rwandan custody.

“I haven’t talked to anyone in my family, I haven’t listened to the radio or watched TV since I was arrested. I haven’t talked to my doctor,” he said.

Judge Maurice Mbishibishi said he would decide Monday whether to grant bail.

Prosecutor Richard Muhumuza argued against it while investigation was ongoing, but agreed not to object if a medical examination determined Erlinder needed treatment in the United States.

Authorities are considering a joint medical evaluation involving a doctor of Erlinder’s choice, Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said, while rejecting a U.S. request made Thursday for the lawyer’s release on compassionate and humanitarian grounds.

“We are sensitive to medical and health conditions, whether it’s for American citizens or others, but we cannot short circuit the legal process, so we stand advised by mental health professions on what needs to happen,” Mushikiwabo said.

Erlinder was hospitalized Tuesday after police said he took dozens of pills in an attempted suicide. Erlinder’s family said it did not believe that.

Meanwhile, the Hutu opposition leader Ingabire was in court Friday to attend Erlinder’s hearing.

She plans to challenge Kagame for the presidency in Aug. 9 elections, and had asked Erlinder for legal advice in defending herself against charges of promoting genocidal ideology.

After returning to Rwanda in January from the Netherlands, Ingabire had visited a memorial to Tutsis killed in the 1994 genocide and asked why Hutus who died weren’t also remembered.

She was arrested and freed on bail, but her passport was seized and she cannot leave Kigali. If convicted, Ingabire, 41, could be sentenced to more than two decades in prison.

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