Minn. law professor hospitalized in Rwanda

Friends and family members of St. Paul law professor Peter Erlinder say he was taken to a hospital in Rwanda Monday after showing signs of illness following a police interrogation.

The medical attention came on Erlinder's fourth day of detention in a Rwandan jail. Last Friday, authorities locked up the well-known activist lawyer for allegedly spreading what are considered illegal views on the African country's genocide.

A fellow American lawyer who is in Rwanda fighting for Erlinder's release says the professor's jail stay appears to be aggravating his health conditions, including high blood pressure. Kurt Kerns says two defense attorneys from Kenya demanded the medical intervention on Erlinder's behalf.

"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," said Kerns.

Kerns says Erlinder will probably return to jail if and when a doctor approves. Kerns says before Erlinder was whisked away to the hospital, Rwandan police asked Erlinder seven questions. While Kerns says he can't disclose the nature of the inquiry, he 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," said Kerns.

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Rwandan authorities kicked Kerns out of the police interrogation because they said Kerns didn't have the proper credentials to represent Erlinder.

Kerns, a lawyer from Wichita, Kansas, accompanied Erlinder on his trip to Rwanda. Kerns half-jokes that at 250 pounds, he was there to provide the muscle in case anything happened.

Erlinder teaches at St. Paul's William Mitchell College of Law and has been a pointed critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Erlinder is in Rwanda to defend a presidential challenger against charges of promoting genocidal ideology.

Rwanda's genocide in 1994 killed more than 500,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The massacres ended when mostly Tutsi rebels led by Kagame defeated the Hutus.

Erlinder's wife, Masako Usui, says her husband never denied that the massacre took place. But she says he has taken issue with the government's explanation as to how it came about. Now, some Rwandans have called her husband a "conspiracy terrorist," and he could face 20 years in prison if convicted.

"It says they don't care about human rights. They don't care about a bill of rights. So, I'm getting more and more angry," she said.

Usui says Erlinder has high cholesterol and is running out of medication. Some of Erlinder's allies in Rwanda have even warned her that the jailers may try to poison his food.

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

"I know their focus is on his fair treatment and that the process move fairly and quickly. So we're giving every information to the highest levels of the embassy," said Klobuchar. "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 says she doesn't know whether Erlinder will be able to come home anytime soon, as he works his way through Rwanda's struggling judicial system.