Rwanda court grants bail to US lawyer Peter Erlinder on medical grounds

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rwanda court grants medical bail to US lawyer

KIGALI, Rwanda — A Rwandan judge on Thursday granted bail on medical grounds to a U.S. lawyer arrested in the country and accused of promoting an ideology that minimizes Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

Peter Erlinder was arrested late last month, and since his arrest has been hospitalized multiple times. He did not appear in court Thursday because he was in the hospital for high blood pressure.

Citing testimony from doctors who say Erlinder has a history of medical problems, Judge Johnstone Busingye of the High Court of Rwanda granted him bail.

One of Erlinder’s lawyers told The Associated Press that Erlinder is free to leave Rwanda. But Busingye said Erlinder must provide the court and the prosecutor’s office with his address at all times and must cooperate with court matters.

The office of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken called the judge’s ruling “excellent news.”

“His family has shown tremendous courage, but when they were in my office their suffering was very clear. I’m relieved it’s over,” a statement from Franken’s office said. “The U.S. Embassy worked tirelessly to resolve this issue and bring Professor Erlinder home, and their dedication ought to be commended.”

Legal groups had condemned the arrest of Erlinder, who is a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where Erlinder has defended clients charged with genocide-related offenses, said this week that Erlinder should be given immunity, because the statements he made that Rwandan authorities believed were criminal took place in court.

Rwanda’s chief prosecutor, Martin Ngoga, said in a statement that the bail decision does not diminish the seriousness of the charges against Erlinder and that he “will soon be called to defend his record of genocide denial that insults the people of Rwanda and inflames those who seek to harm us.

“Bail on health grounds cannot be mistaken as vindication for Mr. Erlinder — it just proves that the justice system he so freely criticizes was willing to show him compassion with respect to his physical and mental well-being,” Ngoga said.

Hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, the vast majority of them ethnic Tutsis, were massacred by extremist Hutus in 100 days during the 1994 genocide. Rwanda has set in place laws making it illegal to deny the genocide took place. Erlinder doesn’t deny mass violence happened but contends it’s inaccurate to blame one side.

Erlinder’s arrest drew protests at high levels of the U.S. government. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Monday that she understood the anxiety of Rwanda’s leaders over genocide denial or genocide rejectionism, but that there are other ways of dealing with those concerns than acting against opposition figures or lawyers.

Associated Press reporter Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis, Minnesota contributed to this report.

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