Rwandan police arrest Minnesota lawyer

Peter Erlinder
Peter Erlinder, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul
Raoul Benavides, William Mitchell College

Rwandan police arrested a prominent Twin Cities law professor Friday for allegedly expressing what are considered illegal views on the country's genocide, according to Rwandan news reports.

William Mitchell College of Law professor Peter Erlinder had arrived in the country earlier this week to represent an opposition candidate for president who faces similar charges.

Erlinder has been outspoken in his disagreement with the government's official explanation of the 1994 genocide, said Eric Janus, president and dean of William Mitchell College of Law.

"He felt that there was a strong case to be made for rethinking the nature of the causes of the genocide and who was to blame for it, and that there were many people who were extremely upset with him because of that advocacy," Janus said.

According to Rwandan news reports, Erlinder appears to have been arrested for violating a 2008 law that outlawed "genocide ideology." Some human rights groups have criticized the law as overly broad and have raised questions about whether it could be used to attack political opponents.

The law defines "genocide ideology" as "an aggregate of thoughts characterized by conduct, speeches, documents and other acts aiming at exterminating or inciting others to exterminate people basing on ethnic group, origin, nationality, region, color, physical appearance, sex, language, religion or political opinion, committed in normal periods or during war."

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department confirmed the arrest, but declined to comment on any pending charges.

"The decision to arrest Mr. Erlinder was the responsibility of the Rwandan authorities," said State Department spokesman Andy Laine.

Laine said U.S. Embassy officials have been in contact with Erlinder, and have provided him with a list of attorneys to represent him in the Rwandan legal system. Laine said there is no evidence that Erlinder has been mistreated, but said he does not know where the law professor is currently being held.

Sarah Erlinder, the professor's daughter, said she spoke with U.S. State Department officials who confirmed her father's arrest.

Sarah Erlinder said officials told her that the State Department will not interfere with Rwanda's legal process, but will monitor the situation closely. She said she has not been able to speak with her father since his arrest.

Erlinder went to Rwanda to represent Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader running against President Paul Kagame in Aug. 9 elections.

Kagame has been lauded abroad for social and economic reforms and is expected to win another seven-year term. But human rights groups say his administration has an ironclad hold on power and quashes opposing views.

Rwanda's 1994 genocide claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The massacres ended when mostly Tutsi rebels led by Kagame defeated the mostly Hutu extremist perpetrators.

Ingabire, a Hutu, returned to Rwanda in January to contest elections after 16 years of living abroad. She says she returned to Rwanda because the country needs an open discussion to promote reconciliation.

She immediately visited a memorial to Tutsis killed in the 1994 genocide, and asked why Hutus who also died weren't 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.

Her case has become a test of where Rwanda stands in its effort to move past the genocide - and how much freedom the government will allow.

Erlinder is the president of an association of defense lawyers at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that is trying the masterminds of the 1994 genocide.

He "has been publicly saying that there was no genocide in Rwanda," said police spokesman Eric Kayiranga.

"It has nothing to do with diplomacy, it is totally a criminal case," said Kayiranga when asked whether the arrest could cause a diplomatic spat with the U.S.

Robert Flaten, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda from 1990 to 1993, said Erlinder has never denied the genocide.

"Basically, what he has said throughout this period ... is that there were atrocities committed on both sides and that the invading army also massacred many people and that's a truth that needs to be told," Flaten said. "He's not denying the truth of the genocide, not at all."

Steve Linders, the spokesman for William Mitchell College of Law, said Erlinder's work in Rwanda was not sponsored by the school, but said William Mitchell professors have a long history of outside legal work for a variety of causes.

A lawyer since 1979, Erlinder, 62, has been on the William Mitchell faculty since 1982. He has worked as a litigator or legal consultant on numerous high-profile cases involving the death penalty, civil rights, alleged government or police misconduct and defense of political activism.

The St. Paul resident assisted in the legal defense of Mohammed Abdullah Warsame, a Canadian citizen who in 2009 pleaded guilty in federal court in Minneapolis to aiding al-Qaida.

He also represented Sami al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor who pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiring to aid terrorists.

Last November, Erlinder traveled to the Netherlands in order to aid in the defense of a Somali man from Minneapolis being held there on U.S. terrorism charges. He also recently advised Ojibwe Indian bands in northern Minnesota in a dispute over treaty fishing rights.

Linders said Erlinder has worked on legal issues involved Rwanda for some time, and had traveled to the country prior to his current trip.

The U.S. State Department said in a March report on Rwanda that citizens' rights to change their government are "effectively restricted" and cited limits on freedoms of speech, press and judicial independence.

Erlinder's family and his colleagues at William Mitchell are consulting with the state's congressional delegation in the hopes of pressuring the Rwandan government to release Erlinder immediately.

(Associated Press writer Edmund Kagire reported from Kigali, Rwanda)