Minnesota law professor Peter Erlinder emphatically told reporters Wednesday he never denied the Rwandan genocide.
Erlinder, a constitutional law expert at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, was detained in Rwanda for three weeks on suspicion of genocide denial, which is a crime in the African country.
At his first formal press conference in Minnesota, since being released from a Rwandan prison, Erlinder bristled when a reporter implied that he has questioned whether the mass violence in Rwanda qualified as genocide.
"No, no, you're putting words in my mouth, and I'm not going to let you do that --- because these are my words, not yours," he said. "I have never denied there was a genocide against Tutsis."
But Erlinder did raise that question in an essay he wrote in 2008. The piece, published on the legal news site Jurist, was titled: "Rwanda: No Conspiracy, No Genocide Planning ... No Genocide?"
Erlinder wrote: "If there was no conspiracy and no planning to kill ethnic civilians, can the tragedy that engulfed Rwanda properly be called 'a genocide' at all?"
Attorneys and human-rights organizations have criticized Rwanda's laws prohibiting so-called genocide ideology, saying they could be used to stifle political opposition.
But one Rwandan government official has said Erlinder is dangerously distorting the history of the genocide.
“There's no doubt professor Erlinder is being extremely zealous in defending his client.”Arthur Martinez, defense attorney
Jean Paul Kimonyo, a policy advisor to President Paul Kagame, said Erlinder and his "followers" profess that the genocide was spontaneous and uncoordinated.
"By doing this, they infer that there was no real intention to commit genocide, and that consequently what happened in Rwanda was not a real genocide," said Kimonyo in a statement released Wednesday by the Rwandan government.
Erlinder has been a pointed critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, and has been outspoken in his disagreement with the government's official explanation of the genocide.
In April, Erlinder helped file a lawsuit in Oklahoma, accusing Kagame of ordering a plane that was carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi to be shot down in 1994.
The deaths of the two men triggered the genocide in Rwanda, in which more than 800,000 people were killed, according to estimates by human rights groups -- mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The massacres ended when mostly Tutsi rebels led by Kagame defeated the Hutus.
Erlinder was arrested by Rwandan authorities on May 28, and released three weeks later so he could seek medical treatment in the U.S. for a number of ailments. He arrived back in the Twin Cities Tuesday.
At the press conference, Erlinder also said his decision to go to Rwanda was "silly" and "stupid," but that he was misled by positive accounts of the country's recent progress from former President Bill Clinton and evangelical minister Rick Warren.
In the Twin Cities, the legal community has been buzzing over Erlinder's case, said Arthur Martinez, a defense lawyer and former student of Erlinder at William Mitchell. Martinez said attorneys tend to view Erlinder from one extreme or the other.
"Talking to one lawyer, he says there should be more lawyers doing this -- fighting and using their profession to change these large social issues," Martinez said. "Other lawyers are thinking, 'He's off the wall. Why's he wasting his time? Why's he going to Rwanda?'"
Following Erlinder's arrest, Martinez scoured Erlinder's writings on Rwanda. The articles, found online, aren't typical of papers written by a professor, Martinez said. Instead, they seem more one-sided, in an effort to advocate for his clients.
Erlinder is a defense lawyer for Rwanda's international tribunal, which is prosecuting the alleged perpetrators of the genocide.
Martinez, along with Erlinder, defended suspects in the 1992 killing of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf. He said his former law professor is just doing his job as a defense attorney.
"We're different from other lawyers in that we're supposed to be zealots: We're supposed to zealously defend our clients," Martinez said. "And there's no doubt professor Erlinder is being extremely zealous in defending his client."
(MPR's Madeleine Baran contributed to this report.)