Minn. law professor detained in Rwanda accused of threatening national security

Peter Erlinder
Peter Erlinder, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. Erlinder was recently jailed in Rwanda for allegedly spreading what are considered illegal views on the African country's genocide.
Raoul Benavides, William Mitchell College

An attorney for Peter Erlinder, a Twin Cities law professor detained in Rwanda, said Tuesday that Rwandan police now claim that Erlinder is a threat to the country's national security.

Attorney Kurt Kerns, reached in the capitol city of Kigali, said the new allegations came during a six-hour interrogation of Erlinder by Rwandan police officials.

Kerns said that since Erlinder's arrest on Friday, Rwandan police have also alleged that the law professor has denied the 1994 genocide and exhibits a "genocide ideology."

In addition, Kerns strongly criticized the conditions at Kicukiro Prison where he said Erlinder is being held, but said Erlinder was not physically abused during questioning and has maintained his innocence.

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"He's one tough guy," Kerns said. "[His mental health] is pretty solid."

Kenneday Ogeto, another attorney representing the law professor also criticized prison officials and said Erlinder was being held in "terrible conditions."

"[Erlinder] has informed us that every time he moves out of his little cell room they handcuff him, including when he has to visit the washrooms," Ogeto wrote via email.

Kerns said he was present during Erlinder's interrogation and has seen Erlinder's cell at Kicukiro Prison.

Kerns said Erlinder is confined to a cell that resembles a "cage," along with other inmates. He sleeps on a foam mattress on the floor and has been denied a pillow, mattress, books, a pen, and paper, Kerns said. He said that Rwandan officials have not allowed Erlinder to make any phone calls, but have provided medication that Erlinder had been taking prior to his detention.

According to Kerns, Erlinder is being fed only bread and water by Rwandan officials. Kerns and other attorneys have been providing bananas, canned meat, and other items, he said.

Kerns sharply criticized the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda for what he describes as a failure to intervene. He said that although Embassy officials have visited Erlinder, they have not asked prison officials to provide a pillow or sheets.

Kerns also said that Embassy officials have not provided Erlinder with any food, other than several granola bars provided yesterday. He said the officials told him that Erlinder's attorneys are responsible for providing additional food.

"It makes me sick that my embassy, while talking quite a bit about how supportive they are, as far as actions, they've done absolutely nothing," Kerns said. "They sit there and give him granola bars and smile a lot and tell him how sorry they are that he's in this predicament, and then they walk out, shake hands, hug the jailors, and apologize for the inconvenience."

U.S. State Department spokesman Darby Holladay declined to comment on Erlinder's attorneys' concerns about prison conditions, other than to say that an embassy consular official has visited the law professor to confirm his welfare.

Holladay said the State Department has been in contact with Rwandan officials about the situation, but have not called for Erlinder's release.

"A consular officer cannot demand the immediate release of a U.S. citizen arrested abroad or otherwise cause the citizen to be released," he said.

It's still unclear whether Erlinder will face formal charges. Erlinder teaches at St. Paul's William Mitchell College of Law and 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 1994 genocide. He arrived in Rwanda about a week ago to defend a presidential challenger against charges of promoting "genocide ideology."

Rwanda's genocide in 1994 killed more than 800,000 people, according to some estimates by human rights groups, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The massacres ended when mostly Tutsi rebels led by Kagame defeated the Hutus.

Rwandan 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."

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.

Erlinder's wife Masako Usui said her husband never denied that the massacre took place. But she said he has taken issue with the government's explanation as to how it came about, and that he thinks there was plenty of blame to go around.

"[The arrest] says they don't care about human rights," Usui said. "They don't care about a bill of rights. So, I'm getting more and more angry."

Kerns said the new accusation that Erlinder poses a threat to national security comes a day after the law professor was taken to a hospital when he fell ill during a police interrogation. Kerns said Erlinder was discharged back to his jail cell later that night.

"They're like, 'We're done with this interrogation. He doesn't look good. His blood pressure is high. We want him taken to a local hospital.' The local authorities complied," Kerns said.

Kerns said the professor's jail stay appears to be aggravating his health conditions, including high blood pressure. He said two defense attorneys from Kenya demanded the medical intervention on Erlinder's behalf.

In an email sent via Erlinder's wife, Ogeto said Rwandan officials asked Erlinder several questions during the interrogation, including whether he attended a Brussels conference, what the objective of the conference was, whether he believes the Tutsis were subject to genocide in 1994, and what he meant by "two genocides" in a document he allegedly authored. Ogeto said that Rwandan officials also asked about a lawsuit Erlinder filed on behalf of two presidential widows.

Ogeto said that Erlinder insisted he could not answer the question about the alleged document he authored without looking at it. Rwandan officials refused to provide a copy of the document, Ogeto said.

Kerns called the case against Erlinder "pathetic."

"They did give us a glimpse as to what their accusations are, but we walked out with a pretty optimistic view of how ridiculously weak the charges are," Kerns said.

Prior to his trip, Erlinder sent a letter to members of Minnesota's Congressional delegation alerting them to his travel plans and expressing concern about his safety.

In the letter, he said he has received reports that "President Kagame specifically targeted me, and several other European lawyers, journalists and academics, for 'discrediting or assassination' at a meeting of all Rwandan ambassadors who had gathered in Rwanda.'"

He added, "I must take the threat seriously."

In response, Rep. Betty McCollum requested that the Department of State inform the U.S. Embassy in Kigali and Rwandan officials about Erlinder's planned visit.

"Since the U.S. and the Government of Rwanda share a strong and positive bilateral relationship it is my expectation that Mr. Erlinder's legal work will be allowed to be conducted without interference or risk of personal danger to him," McCollum's letter states.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Monday morning that there's no indication Erlinder was jailed for any reason other than representing his client. She said she has expressed her concerns to the U.S. State Department.

"I know their focus is on his fair treatment and that the process moves fairly and quickly, so we're giving every [piece of] information to the highest levels of the embassy," Klobuchar said. "Our hope is that there will be some kind of hearing either today, tomorrow, or Wednesday, and hopefully he can be at least released out of jail."

But Klobuchar said she doesn't know whether Erlinder will be able to come home anytime soon, as he works his way through Rwanda's judicial system.

For his part, Kerns said that he believes that any significant help will come from U.S. citizens applying pressure on the U.S. and Rwandan governments. He said the U.S. State Department has shown no willingness to get involved.

"We like to think of ourselves as a nation of laws, and we like to think people have our back if we're stuck in a Rwandan cage," Kerns said. "And the reality is that people that have your back are unfortunately [citizens] back in the U.S. because at least they listen and at least they try to help."

(MPR News reporter Laura Yuen contributed to this report.)