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

By Edmund Kagire, AP
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rwanda court grants medical release to US lawyer

KIGALI, Rwanda — A Rwandan judge on Thursday granted release 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 has been hospitalized multiple times since his arrest last month. He acknowledged this week that he had attempted suicide in jail by overdosing on pills, telling the court he had a breakdown and lost hope. 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.

Relatives in the U.S. said it was possible Erlinder could go free Friday, but noted his release has to work its way through the Rwandan legal system.

Erlinder, 62, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., is lead defense attorney for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which is prosecuting Rwandans charged with involvement in the mass killings. He went to Rwanda to help an opposition leader who wants to run for president but was arrested and charged with promoting a genocidal ideology.

Legal groups had condemned Erlinder’s arrest and the U.N. tribunal said this week that he should be given immunity, because his statements that Rwandan authorities believed were criminal took place in court as part of his work for the body.

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.

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.

U.S. Embassy officials were present at Erlinder’s hearing Thursday and had contacted his family, spokesman Mark Toner said.

“We don’t have all the legal details on today’s ruling (but) it is our understanding that he will be able to travel freely once the orders for his release are transmitted to the proper authorities,” Toner said.

Minnesota’s congressional delegation also had pressed for Erlinder’s release, and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was among those welcoming the decision.

“I always knew he would be released because the government of Rwanda is trying to establish itself as democratic and that it has a fair justice system,” Klobuchar told the AP.

Minnesota’s other senator, 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,” Franken said in a statement.

Erlinder’s brother, Scott Erlinder, of Chicago, said he suspects international political pressure contributed to the judge’s ruling. But family members also noted the charges against Erlinder had not been dropped.

“There are so many questions on my mind,” said his wife, Masako Usui, who is in New York this week to meet with U.N. Security Council members ahead of a presentation Friday by the presiding judge of the Tanzania-based tribunal on its work.

Usui said she still plans to attend the session, and that she believes the tribunal’s assertion that Erlinder should enjoy diplomatic immunity had made a critical difference.

“That announcement changed the trend,” she said.

Associated Press writers Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis, Minn., and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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